McNeil’s article goes on to explain that the release of the White House report was late, poorly planned, and somewhat clumsy. “Kathleen Sebelius, secretary of health and human services, was at the disease centers’ headquarters in Atlanta, addressing a special symposium on swine flu,” he reported. “A summary of the report was handed out by the centers’ press staff to medical reporters as she spoke, but Ms. Sebelius did not dwell on it or mention its forecast of 30,000 to 90,000 deaths, more than twice the 36,000 deaths usually caused by seasonal flu.”
Both Sebelius and Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the CDC, “acknowledged that ‘some people’ would die, but neither gave an estimate,” McNeil reported.
Again, none of this is to say that swine flu isn’t a very grave threat. It’s important to note that by offering this description of Sebelius and Frieden’s presentation, however, McNeil is not just clarifying the record. He is also explaining why the Times did not bite on the easy, death-becomes-us headline. Instead of taking the bait, the Times ran a restrained, but well-reported and no less serious article from the Associated Press the following day. The piece accurately covered the key details of the White House report, but focused on other comments Sebelius made about the importance of the swine flu vaccine. Bloomberg News and The Wall Street Journal also carried complete and insightful articles that displayed just the right amount of gravity and caution.
Reporters really must be more careful with stories like this one and resist the temptation to run with catchy yet simplistic headlines. A recent poll found that many Americans aren’t worried about swine flu, but there is a fine line between motivating them to take more health precautions and needlessly scaring them. In such cases, attention to detail is more important than ever.