A Related Epidemic: Swine Flu Brings New Lows in Context-to-Chatter Ratio

    by Benjamin Melançon
    April 30, 2009

    One pig, if only in the news topic logo*, usually gets a cameo in television coverage of swine flu. The lonely pig is out of context, though — separated from the three-quarters of a million caged, crammed, and fattened pigs slaughtered annually at the massively polluting pig factory in the town with the first human case of the virus.

    There is not yet hard proof that the pigs half-owned by U.S. agribusiness giant Smithfield Farms evolved the virus in their literal cesspool conditions — there isn’t a single pig outed with having this flu anywhere — but media are rarely shy about using attention-grabbing images. Perhaps the reason we’ve seen so few panoramas of pig purgatory now that it is swine time on every channel is because no establishment media organization covered the damage and risks industrial animal agriculture puts on the environment and public health, even though the Pew Commission did much of the investigative work and shared it exactly one year ago in this PDF report.

    We are getting no context because the still-dominant news sources have no context to give.

    News is what matters, and context is what makes it matter. Local journalism, a focus of the Idea Lab, is in a sense one of the most important contexts our media routinely misses — how does everything around you apply to your life, right here — but there are missed connections across the spectrum. For the swine flu, we get constant chatter and repetition, but little discussion of possible origins or the economic, political, and environmental context in which the flu appeared.***

    Tangents on immigration and bluster about closing the border dominate the analysis beyond “get a face mask.” Irresponsible speculation about the flu being lab-manufactured to benefit connected people in the security racket would be more germane. What we really need is real reporting because in a vacuum speculation will quite reasonably arise, here from supporters of Ron Paul.

    NAFTA flu: Putting events in context doesn’t have to be hard. The author of the first article cited, Al Giordano, did it in two words. Days before a Democracy Now report using the same title, a post from his Facebook account that cited a post by Tom Philpott on Grist.org, he wrote “time to call it what it is: the NAFTA flu.” Even if that pig plantation in La Gloria, Mexico, is not the origin of the flu (as a response post reminds), it is hard to escape the deregulation of corporate operations and deterioration in living conditions associated with the so-called North American Free Trade Agreement.

    Context in two words. Was that so hard?

    I am rewriting my 2007 Knight News Challenge project, Related Content, to integrate with Recommend API and Drupal’s move toward semantic capabilities in core. I hope that making it easy to bring up a body of context as new events arise will help reward news organizations that are doing the work we need.

    Disclosures: With Agaric I am involved in Drupal, the community-built content management system which that Ron Paul site runs; Drupal is not responsible for what is posted there. I am a vegan for ethical reasons (though my political concerns center on humans). Last but not least, I am a supporter of the non-profit Fund for Authentic Journalism, which made possible the NAFTA flu post cited here.


    • Bonus symbolism! This one thin clean pig is often next to the double helix Caduceus symbol, which the news organizations incorrectly use instead of the Rod of Asclepius medical symbol.
    Tagged: context drupal speculation swine flu

    One response to “A Related Epidemic: Swine Flu Brings New Lows in Context-to-Chatter Ratio”

    1. Sutures says:

      Hope that, as humans are often exposed to forms of H1N1 through seasonal flu, our immune systems may have something of a head start in fighting infection.

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