These reports could do little more than state the facts, however. For now, the only people who are “convinced” that the CAFO is at fault are the residents of La Gloria. Most articles printed the canned statement from Smithfield and the Mexican government, saying that they have “found no clinical signs or symptoms of the presence of swine influenza in its herd or its employees working at its joint ventures anywhere in Mexico.” That statement, of course, belies the fact that it is unclear whether or not anybody has actually tested the pigs and workers at Granjas Carroll. At CNN, Gupta reported that Smithfield and the Mexican Department of Agriculture told him they had, in fact, done testing, which had come back negative. Even if they have tested, however, it is clear that independent verification is needed. The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization has sent an emergency response team to the area, but there is still no word about what it has found.
There have been a few exceptions to the restrained coverage in mainstream news outlets (mostly among British publications, curiously enough). The Times of London and The Independent ran articles that themselves were not substantially different from others. Their respective headlines, however—“Mexico outbreak traced to ‘manure lagoons’ at pig farm” and “For La Gloria, the stench of blame is from pig factories”—were sensationalistic and grossly misleading.
The Guardian has run two op-eds on the subject. One, by a University of California history professor, made the rash statement in its lede that, “The Mexican swine flu, a genetic chimera probably conceived in the faecal mire of an industrial pigsty, suddenly threatens to give the whole world a fever.” The other, by a member of the European Parliament, called for more research and quoted the director of Public Health and Animal Agriculture at the U.S. Humane Society saying that the first triple-hybrid swine flu virus (as the one responsible for the current outbreak appears to be) emerged at a North Carolina factory farm in 1998.
Clearly, it is too early to make bold pronouncements about CAFOs’ role in abetting the epidemic that has now spread to seven countries. As a front-page article in The New York Times on Wednesday pointed out, even “La Gloria may not, in the end, be the source of anything.” And Yulsman, who originally chided the press for ignoring factory farms, wrote a follow-up post criticizing CNN’s Headline News for hyping the threat they pose. Many worry that jumping to conclusions can lead to panic or incite unnecessary and costly control measures. (Take, for example, Egypt’s decision to slaughter all of the country’s 300,000 pigs despite no confirmed cases there, or an article in The Washington Post about the threat to the global economy.)
That said, now is the perfect time for journalists to begin investigating CAFOs in a responsible fashion. That means doing things a little differently than the early blog posts, which tended to have a finger-pointing tone, did not deliver much context about evidence and controlling for alternative hypotheses, and did not call experts to test their theories.
Those bloggers deserve credit for calling the press into action, however, for they obviously succeeded. It’s a fine line between asking tough questions and jumping to conclusions, and somebody has to walk it.