Mass mediated disease: A case study analysis of news reporting and three influenza pandemics and public health policy

Debra Ellen Menconi Blakely

Abstract

The effect of infectious disease on humanity has been historically profound. The central organizing story line or theme in news stories provides for a frame for social meaning, and can be analyzed to shed light upon the context within which these stories originated. A framing analysis provides for an organized approach to defining the mass mediated themes created by news stories, which is essentially a historical discussion of the mediated narratives. The purpose of this study is to address how the social construction of 1,493 news stories and editorials about disease was presented in The New York Times, The Times (London) and magazine articles indexed by The Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature , if it changed over time, and if this change was reflected by the public health policies. Specifically, frames that were identified and addressed were narrative discourse, which involved defining the disease and blame for the disease; arbiter frames; and public health policy frames which were identified and categorized as medical, behavioral, ecological, or future health policies. Influenza pandemics make for a compelling topic for historical framing analysis because influenza is a continuing news story with three clearly defined pandemics. The framing analysis, spanning fifty-three years (1917-1970), focused upon the Spanish influenza pandemic of 1918, the Asian influenza pandemic of 1957, and the Hong Kong influenza pandemic of 1968. The time frame represents the first breaking story to a year past the defined pandemic time frame. This study found that the social construction of influenza changed over time. The 1918 Spanish influenza pandemic produced a theme of intense anxiety and can best be described as a panicked response to the disease. The 1957 Asian influenza pandemic produced a theme of scientific optimism, for which media stories presented a theme of control over disease by way of a vaccine and antibiotics. The 1968 Hong Kong influenza pandemic theme consisted of one that used nature to explain the inability of scientists not to control the disease, but just to hold it at bay. Together, the three case studies demonstrate that the social construction of influenza did change over time, and that these changes were reflected in the narrative construction, arbiters, and public health policy frames. A key common element across all the pandemic themes was control, which is reflective of the ultimate goal for public health officials, which is to control and eradicate the public health threat. Influenza has not been eradicated, and no vaccine exists for its deadliest mutant, the Spanish influenza virus.