The first thing to bear in mind, before reading any newspaper coverage of swine flu, is that if you have swine flu, and then die, that doesn't necessarily mean you've died of swine flu. For example, you could be dying of cancer, then get swine flu, then die from your cancer.
The second thing to bear in mind is that reporters who write about swine flu will know this fact. They know that one thing does not necessarily confirm the other. They will know that people who die, having caught swine flu, may not necessarily have died from swine flu.
Which makes it unforgivable that the link is being blithely made by newspapers up and down the country, including national papers, who should know better. In fact I can't help concluding they're not stupid, they're not ignorant; that they do know better, but that they have simply decided to mislead their readers. Swine flu deaths are a better story than people with swine flu dying from other illnesses; and a better story than people with weakened immune systems or existing health problems, for example, succumbing to swine flu.
It's interesting to compare and contrast this attitude with how newspapers cover hospital-acquired infections. Imagine a terminally ill patient, who was dying anyway, contracts MRSA or C-difficile in hospital, possibly that they've acquired from their visiting relatives rather than by licking a dirty hospital floor - how is that then reported? OUR HOSPITALS ARE KILLING US! Again, the truth is a little more complicated. Not loads more complicated. But it is the truth, unlike simply imagining that 'dirty hospitals' kill people who would otherwise have been tickety-boo. Not that there isn't a problem with hygiene causing deaths, because of course there is; it's just that I don't think it's a million times more difficult to represent these things accurately. Readers of newspapers are intelligent people; they deserve to be treated with respect, and told what's actually going on, in detail, rather than a grossly simplified version of it, inevitably the most panic-inducing version of it.
The Daily Express, of all people, attempted to try and ask people not to panic earlier this week. As these images show, it's a bit rich coming from them. Today, they've gone back to deciding that it is time to panic after all:
350 WILL die? They WILL? No doubt about it? This from the paper that earlier this week asked people not to panic. Some chance, with front pages like that!
The Mail's story today shows you how they turn the facts of the situation into the "Aaaargh! We're all gonna die!!!!!!" narrative they want in order to scare their readers:
A baby is fighting for its life in hospital today after its mother gave birth prematurely before dying from swine flu.
Sounds like the mother definitely died from swine flu then, doesn't it? The phrase 'dying from swine flu' is a bit of a giveaway. But are we really sure about that?
A hospital spokesman said: 'Whipps Cross University Hospital NHS Trust can confirm that a 39-year-old woman passed away on July 13, 2009 and that she was infected with Pandemic H1N1. The trust can confirm that she had underlying health conditions.'
Hmm. That's not the same thing at all, is it? And incidentally, I wonder why we haven't seen pictures of this woman all over the papers?
The pregnant woman died at Whipps Cross Hospital in the capital. She is thought to have been a paraplegic after a car crash several years ago.
Relatives of the victim, who lived in London but is originally thought to be from Bangladesh, are said to be caring for her five other children.
Yes, that'll be it.
Watch the deception at work here as well:
Other victims include American tourist has become the latest to die from swine flu in the UK after falling ill during a holiday in Scotland with her husband.
She had been in intensive care at Raigmore Hospital in Inverness for three weeks but died yesterday.
The use of the word 'victim' implies that the person who died must have died from swine flu, doesn't it? But wait:
It is understood she had 'significant' underlying health problems.
Perhaps not a swine flu 'victim' then? Perhaps not. Or perhaps so. Why would it hurt to express the genuine uncertainty about the facts of the situation? Why portray this poor person as being a swine flu 'victim'? What does that achieve, apart from making the virus appear more lethal than it may well be?
Also in the Mail there's this:
Chief Medical Officer Sir Liam Donaldson has ordered the NHS to plan for this worst case scenario, although he stressed he was making assumptions not predictions.
It's sensible to plan for a worst-case scenario, so that if it does happen then the health service is prepared - that's entirely reasonable. But unfortunately, despite the stressing of it being 'assumptions not predictions' we get headlines like the one in the Express today: 350 WILL DIE A DAY. Not might or could, but WILL. That's how newspapers use language to ramp up the tension, turn a possibility into a certainty, and mislead their readers.
In the coming weeks, swine flu might well be 'getting serious'. But there is no way of knowing. But a mass panic over swine flu by healthy people could overwhelm the health service and cause severe problems, even deaths, for people with more lethal illnesses than swine flu currently is, who might have to wait longer for treatment. If that did happen that would be a real tragedy, and an avoidable one at that. That's why newspapers have a responsibility to be careful about what they report. They're not, and it's shameful.