Media responsible with mad-cow story

From the Editor’s Desk

Federal health officials estimate 1 million Americans get sick each week because of the food they eat. About 6,000 of those people get sick enough for hospitalization and close to 100 of them die.
And yet mad-cow disease has dominated the headlines in recent weeks. And not one American is known to have contracted the human form of mad-cow disease from eating food in this country.
Have the media failed to inform the public about serious health issues while blowing mad-cow issues out of proportion?
Not at all.
The statistics I just reported were lifted directly from a story by Alison Young of Knight Ridder Newspapers.
Knight Ridder stories are published in newspapers all over the country. Young’s story was one of the first that popped up when I did an Internet search for “mad cow” on Sunday. Stories about food safety appear in this newspaper and others around the world all the time. Just because people don’t always read them doesn’t mean they’re not there.
I’ve read a lot of stories lately, and seen several television news shows, that suggest the media have shamelessly alarmed the public with their sensational mad-cow coverage in efforts to increase circulation or improve ratings.
“(The media) just need to shut up,” Stella Watson, manager of Tucumcari Ranch Supply, told a reporter recently. “Right now people just need to let the government take care of the whole thing and not lose control.”
I realize I’m not the most objective observer when it comes to media critics, but I respectfully suggest the vast majority of the media have not done anything wrong in reporting on mad-cow disease.
First, I haven’t seen more than one or two reports that suggest anyone has stopped eating meat because of the Holstein in Washington state. I have seen multiple reports of consumers saying they don’t plan to change their eating habits, despite the mad-cow reports. That suggests, to this small mind at least, that the media have not scared too many people away from burgers and steaks, and neither has the mad cow.
Yes, headlines are usually dominated by unusual events. As best I can recall from my journalism 101 class, that’s one of the definitions of news — it’s unusual.
What if you opened up today’s Clovis News Journal and found the headline, “35,000 residents report routine day”?
Or what if your television news station opened its broadcast by running down the list of airplanes that did not crash over the weekend?
The point is well taken that most Americans are far more likely to be a victim of salmonella poisoning than mad-cow disease. We’re also more likely to die in a car wreck than be eaten by a shark, but which story is more likely to catch your eye?
Most people are smart enough to know that terrorists don’t crash airplanes into buildings very often, but we need to be on the lookout for such things.
Objective, balanced reporting of unusual events does not alarm the public, it simply informs them about issues of interest.

From the Editor’s Desk is a weekly memo to CNJ readers. David Stevens can be reached at 763-6991, extension 310, or by e-mail: