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Media stampede (again) on mad cow coverage

Like teenage boys eager for the next horror movie or roller coaster ride, the news media love a good scare. How else to explain the alarmist tone in the coverage of the discovery of a single mad cow?

Call it “mad media disease.”

I’m not suggesting that the story wasn’t worth covering. Nor am I suggesting that the necessary caveats weren’t in place. But the media speak to their audience in a very simple code: If a story is featured prominently on the evening network newscasts, if it gets multiple pages in the weekly newsmagazines and if it’s on Page 1 -- especially if it’s “above the fold” on Page 1 -- of your daily newspaper, news executives are telling you, “This is important. You should be concerned about this.”

Concerned? How about terrified?

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Mad cow dominated the news everywhere. It led the CBS, NBC and ABC evening newscasts the day it broke, and as recently as last week, Time gave it four pages, Newsweek seven.

The New York Times played its first mad cow story above the fold on Page 1 on Christmas Eve. The next day, mad cow was the lead story on Page 1 -- accompanied by another above-the-fold Page 1 story, eight additional mad cow stories spread over three pages inside the paper plus that day’s lead editorial.

Mad cow remained on Page 1 of the New York Times for nine straight days, often accompanied by other stories inside the paper.

The Los Angeles Times made mad cow its lead story on Page 1 the first day and played it above the fold the next two days. USA Today made it the lead story on Page 1 the first day and three more times in the next week. Other major newspapers gave the story similarly prominent and continuing attention. It made Page 1 on Dec. 24 in every newspaper I looked at all across the country, from Atlanta to Boston to Chicago to Dallas to San Francisco.

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As I said, major news organizations did include caveats in their coverage. In the fifth paragraph of its first story, the New York Times quoted the secretary of agriculture as saying the discovery of the sick cow “does not pose any kind of significant risk to the human food chain.” The headline on the first Los Angeles Times story said, “ ‘Mad Cow’ Case Tied to Feed; Little Human Risk Seen.” USA Today’s first headline -- “Mad cow threat hits USA” -- was followed by a smaller, secondary headline that said, “Official: Consumer risk ‘extremely low’.”

But that’s exactly my point. The caveats were generally smaller and secondary, and given the sheer volume of the coverage, the prominent, steady drumbeat of coverage, they seemed swallowed up -- as it were -- by the overall message of fear and anxiety.

During a discussion last Sunday on CNN’s weekly media show, “Reliable Sources,” when Geneva Overholser of the journalism school at the University of Missouri said that major newspapers had published stories pointing out that “in fact, your chances of getting it [mad cow disease] are infinitesimal,” reporter Paul Farhi of the Washington Post responded:

“But subtlety often gets lost in the course of a ... media panic like this. The headlines are enough. The fact that it’s on ... the front page day after day after day, it brings about the idea that you could get this.”

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Some media coverage of mad cow has been balanced, “especially in the choice of op-ed articles,” says Barry Glassner, a USC sociologist and the author of the 1999 book “The Culture of Fear,” a study of why so many people are so afraid of the wrong things.

“But the danger to humans appears to be between zero and very, very close to zero,” Glassner says “and too often, the headlines make the danger sound much greater than it almost certainly is; the news stories often take eight or nine paragraphs to tell how low the risk really is.”

Glassner’s “favorite” headline was in the Dec. 29 Wall Street Journal. It said, “Scientific data offer no proof of beef safety.”

What a surprise. One of the oldest axioms in science is that you can’t prove a negative, so of course scientific data can’t prove that there is no danger from beef.

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“In the United Kingdom,” Glassner says, “tens of millions of people were exposed to contaminated beef, and there were all these stories predicting 100,000 to 200,000 deaths, and so far, there have been fewer than 150.

“But I think that ever since mad cow in England, the American media have been sitting around, waiting impatiently for an incident here, and as soon as it happened, they were ready to go.”

A danger in overstating

I’m not one of those critics who thinks the media publish scare stories to sell more newspapers and magazines (although I don’t doubt for a moment that the quest for ratings is behind many choices that television news executives make, especially in local television). I think most newspaper editors take seriously the watchdog/consumer advocate role of their publications and they see it as their civic and moral duty to alert their readers to any danger.

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As a result, they often overstate those dangers. Remember the big Alar/apple scare about a decade ago? Remember pesticide residue and breast cancer? Road rage? Killer bees? Shark attacks? An AIDS epidemic among non-drug-using heterosexuals?

One difference with mad cow is that, to some extent, it’s been covered as not just a health story but as a business story. The cattle industry is, after all, a very big business in this country -- a $75-billion-to-$100-billion industry, depending on whose figures you use. Thus, one Time magazine headline asked, “Will consumer anxiety cripple the industry?”

But mad cow is only a big business story -- and crippling anxiety is only likely to result from that story -- if the media play it as a big threat to human health. I mean, if someone found that one cow in Washington laughed at milking time two days before Christmas, and there was some concern that laughing cows wouldn’t stand still long enough to be milked or slaughtered, “happy cow” disease would not suddenly dominate the news.

To be fair, some recent coverage of mad cow has been somewhat more balanced, with more specifics on just which parts of the cow carry the disease and a greater emphasis on how unlikely humans are to get it. But the early, wall-to-wall coverage virtually rendered all this moot for many readers and viewers.

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“The coverage of mad cow disease is demonstrating the tendency for reporters and editors to play up the dramatic, the frightening and the controversial aspects of risk stories, and to play down or omit altogether information that puts the risk in perspective,” as David Ropeik of the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis wrote on the Washington Post op-ed page.

My wife served beef -- a standing rib roast -- for Christmas Eve dinner, and I must admit that I wondered if any of our guests, buffeted by the early, alarmist coverage that very day, would balk before I could even start carving.

Fortunately, our friends are not the panicky sort. Everyone ate the beef. No one even mentioned mad cow disease. A week later, I had tongue and sweetbreads for dinner. Two days after that, I had a hamburger. On the day I wrote this column, I had a steak.

I don’t usually eat that much meat, but since I take Lipitor for my cholesterol, I figured I could survive that brief beef burst. And I figure that heart disease is far more likely to kill me -- and most of my fellow Americans -- than mad cow disease. In fact, I figure I’m far more likely to be killed by a mad reader than a mad cow.

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David Shaw can be reached at david.shaw@latimes.com. To read his previous “Media Matters” columns, please go to latimes.com/shaw-media.


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