Press Lessons From the 1918 Pandemic Flu
In his book, "The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History," John M. Barry explains in great detail what happened to people and public institutions, including the press, during the 1918 pandemic flu. The dearth of solid and accurate reporting by the press about the extent of the public health danger of the flu occurred because of broader circumstances of that time. American troops were fighting in Europe in World War I and maintaining morale was seen as critical to that effort. It was punishable by 20 years in jail to "utter, print, write, or publish any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language about the government of the United States." Even a U.S. Congressman was imprisoned under this act. Also, in 1917, President Woodrow Wilson had established the Committee on Public Information with the purpose of influencing American public opinion through a vigorous propaganda campaign. One architect of this campaign said, "Truth and falsehood are arbitrary terms .... The force of an idea lies in its inspirational value. It matters little if it is true or false." It was within this political context that the press was functioning when pandemic flu reached the United States. The press's uncritical approach to providing the public with the truth of what was happening was certainly affected by the constraints under which public officials and news reporters felt they were operating. Barry notes that today, however, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is trying to institutionalize in its pandemic planning the need for candor if another pandemic flu strikes.
The following excerpts are taken from Barry's book.
Distortions Result in an Absence of Trust
Newspapers reported on the disease with the same mixture of truth and half-truth, truth and distortion, truth and lies with which they reported everything else. And no national official ever publicly acknowledged the danger of influenza.
But in the medical community, deep concern had arisen .... Many serious pathologists in Germany and Switzerland considered the possibility of plague. The director of the laboratory at Bellevue Hospital wondered in the Journal of the American Medical Association if "the world is facing" not a pandemic of an extraordinarily lethal influenza but instead a mild version of plague, noting "The similarity of the two diseases is enforced by the clinical features, which are remarkably alike in many respects, and by the pathology of certain tissues other than the lungs."
What pathologists said in medical journals physicians muttered to each other, while laymen and women watched a husband or wife turning almost black. And a great chill settled over the land, a chill of fear ....
As terrifying as the disease was, the press made it more so. They terrified by making little of it, for what officials and the press said bore no relationship to what people saw and touched and smelled and endured. People could not trust what they read. Uncertainty follows distrust, fear follows uncertainty, and, under conditions such as these, terror follows fear.
When influenza struck in Massachusetts, the nearby Providence Journal reported, "All the hospital beds at the forts at Boston Harbor are occupied by influenza patients .... There are 3,500 cases at Camp Devens." Yet the paper asserted, "Such reports may actually be reassuring rather than alarming. The soldier or sailor goes to bed if he is told to, just as he goes on sentry duty. He may not think he is sick, and he may be right about it, but the military doctor is not to be argued with, and at this time the autocrat is not permitting the young men under his charge to take any chance."
As the virus infested the Great Lakes Naval Training Station, The Associated Press reported, "To dispel alarm caused throughout the country by exaggerated stories ... Captain W.A. Moffat, commandant, gave out the statement today that while there are about 4,500 cases of the disease among the 45,000 blue jackets at the station, the situation in general is much improved. The death rate has been only one and one half percent, which is below the death rate in the east."
That report was meant to reassure. It is unlikely that it did so, even though it omitted the fact that quarantines were being imposed upon the training station, the adjoining Great Lakes Aviation Camp, and the nearby Fort Sheridan army cantonment, which, combined, amounted to the largest military concentration in the country. And military authorities of course assured both civilians nearby as well as the country at large that "the epidemic is on the wane."
Over and over in hundreds of newspapers, day after day, repeated in one form or another, people read Rupert Blue's reassurance as well: "There is no cause for alarm if precautions are observed."
They read the words of Colonel Philip Doane, the officer in charge of health at the country's shipyards, who told The Associated Press, "The so-called Spanish influenza is nothing more or less than old fashioned grippe."
Those words, too, ran in hundreds of newspapers. But people could smell death in them. Then they came to know that death....
'Don't Get Scared!'
So people watched the virus approach, and feared, feeling as impotent as it moved toward them as if it were an inexorable oncoming cloud of poison gas. It was a thousand miles away, five hundred miles away, fifty miles away, twenty miles away....
Wherever one was in the country, it crept closerÑit was in the next town, the next neighborhood, the next block, the next room. In Tucson the Arizona Daily Star warned readers not to catch "Spanish hysteria!" "Don't worry!" was the official and final piece of advice on how to avoid the disease from the Arizona Board of Health.
Don't get scared! said the newspapers everywhere. Don't get scared! they said in Denver, in Seattle, in Detroit; in Burlington, Vermont, and Burlington, Iowa, and Burlington, North Carolina; in Greenville, Rhode Island, and Greenville, South Carolina, and Greenville, Mississippi. And every time the newspapers said, Don't get scared! they frightened.