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Case Study: Transparency and Autonomy in Swine Flu Coverage

April 14, 2014 10:22 pm Category: Spring 2014 A+ / A-

By Stefani Hermann

Abstract: During the 2009 Swine Flu Pandemic, media coverage distorted information in order to alter public opinion creating an ethical dilemma between the transparency and autonomy of news sources. Through studies conducted in the UK and America it has been proven that the media coverage of Swine Flu affected public opinion by presenting information out of context. Kantian theory as well as the Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics prove that the sensationalized news coverage was unethical, however no repercussions were taken to discourage such behavior by the media. Because of this event, the public must be wary of information they receive through the media and must also be responsible for researching current events in order to construct accurate beliefs. The purpose of this case study is to explore the impact of media coverage on public opinion surrounding the pandemic and explain the unethical actions of the media.

Throughout the communication discipline it is unarguable that transparency and autonomy are imperative for all ethical professionals especially those in public relations. However there is no clear line to determine how much of the truth needs to be exposed to the public or in what form. The ethical dilemma then lies in how much information should be released to the public and in what circumstances is it acceptable to frame information. In the case of the 2009 Swine Flu pandemic, constant media coverage led to a worldwide panic. By offering 24/7 coverage of the H1N1 pandemic, the media was able to create hysteria and exaggerate the impact of the virus out of context.
Kant’s attack on utilitarian theories makes his views on transparency and autonomy more relevant to modern society. Rather than thinking about the greatest good for the greatest amount of people, he focuses on moral duties that create a greater amount of good for the entire population rather than a pre-determined majority. His belief that good will is imperative to moral decisions remains persistent through all of his moral theories, as he puts good will above all else, even if it does not result in a pleasant outcome. Kant focuses on morality and the benefits of moral action despite harm to the decision maker making him the prime candidate to discuss the challenges faced when introduced to a moral dilemma concerning transparency and autonomy. Kant’s theory of the categorical imperative states that the public should not be used as a means to an end but rather as ends in and of themselves. In Kant’s opinion it is necessary to uphold moral duties in all situations regardless of possible effects. In the case of the 2009 Swine Flu Pandemic, media channels sensationalized their coverage in order to increase viewership and public interest. In doing so, news organizations traded transparency for profit and not only neglected Kantian theory, but also breached the Society of Professional Journalists’ ethical code.

The media coverage of the 2009 swine flu epidemic sensationalized the outbreak to make it seem more dangerous in the public eye. From the early signs of Swine Flu in America, ABC reported daily on Good Morning America. By bringing the attention to the public eye, news sources were setting the agenda. They wanted people to talk about Swine Flu, and so they reported.

Lisa Fletcher of Good Morning America reported that “Around the country, tens of thousands lined up for swine flu vaccines, hoping to get a shot before being shot out.” While slugs on the screen read “Swine Flu Emergency” and “Anxiety Grows over Vaccine.” Across the nation, Americans were waking up to see “anxiety”, “panic”, “emergency” and “widespread” on their morning news station. While viewing lines of Americans waiting to be vaccinated. The word choice used was created to attract attention however in doing so it was altering public perception of the virus. (Fletcher).

As ABC said Good Morning with a frightening coverage of the Swine Flu, they sent Americans to sleep with the same mindset. On ABC’s Nightline, Martin Bashir interviewed a doctor on the matter, however, the same persistence of panicked diction arose. The spread of the virus was “mysterious” and “confusing.” Dr. Tim Johnston warned the public of the symptoms of Swine flu including “a high fever, headache, body wide aching muscles, a feeling of terrible fatigue, possibly nausea and vomiting, possibly coughing and lung symptoms” and stated “when you have those symptoms, you obviously need to call your doctor or go to an emergency room.” This advice would send Americans darting to the emergency room at the slightest inkling of a cough or upset stomach. Bahsir even made a point to ask him, “Are we not in danger of creating a panic here? If you’re like exaggerating the potential dangers?” The fact that Bashir noted the potential of creating public panic, he did so. After all there is nothing that panics people more than the idea of a panic (Bashir).

According to a telephone survey published in the British Medical Journal concerning public perception of the Swine Flu in England, Scotland and Whales, 4.9% of the 997 people surveyed were practicing avoidance behaviors, including avoiding public events, avoiding public transit, staying home from work, and removing children from school. 24.2% of those surveyed believed that wearing a facemask in public was necessary to avoid contracting Swine Flu.

Minority groups were found to be four times more likely to practice avoidance behaviors than non-minorities. The survey also found that 80% of people felt that they were at risk of contracting swine flu and 75% believed the information they received through news media was clear (Rubin).

Yet British news source, The Guardian reported that Britons were less likely than Americans to take precautionary measures to avoid contraction of the virus. After a survey of 5 countries (England, America, Japan, Argentina, and Mexico) conducted by the Harvard School of Medicine The Guardian, reported only 27% of Britons said they were more likely to cover coughs or use tissues in light of the Swine Flu Pandemic compared to 61% of Americans. This shows the difference in perception that could be linked to media content. Lead researcher Dr. Gillian Steel Fisher, said “The wide variations between countries in our study shows that in the event of another serious outbreak of infectious disease, public perceptions have to be taken into account.” If Britons possess a different public perception than Americans, is it due to the content of the media messages they are exposed to? (The Guardian Oct.2009).

The Harvard School of Medicine surveyed perception of the Swine Flu among American businesses. Of the 1,057 businesses surveyed, 84% believed that the Swine flu would hurt their business and only 1/3 believed they would be able to operate their businesses in the case of an outbreak. The uncertainty for business owners was derived from the media content they consumed regarding Swine Flu (Gavish, Sept. 2009).

These surveys of public perception show the great impact of news coverage on the public. The question does not lie in whether or not the media altered public perception of the Swine Flu, but rather in whether the molding of public opinion was ethical. Before a verdict can be made it is important to have philosophic groundwork as a cornerstone for an argument. Kant discusses transparency and autonomy in a manner that is most relevant to modern society and in turn most applicable in this case.

According to Kant’s theory of a priori in the Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, he discusses the importance of disclosing the whole truth regardless of situation. “We have to admit that morality’s law applies so widely that it holds merely for men but for all rational beings as such…absolute necessity and therefore unconditionally and without exceptions” (Kant 15). This applies to transparency in the fact that it urges people that it is their moral duty to enforce truthfulness at all times, regardless of whether or not it will be beneficial to them. Kant continues to discuss reason is the sole source of moral thinking and through this mean we are able to establish a moral law within society, “there is no genuine supreme principle of morality that doesn’t rest on pure reason alone independently of all possible experience” (16). Because of this, Kant believes that morality is completely objective and regardless of the situation, should be held as a high priority. The experience and situation does not matter to Kant, moral duty should always be the deciding factor in any ethical conflict.

Unlike utilitarian philosophy, Kant rejects the opinion of the majority and accepts reason as the sole factor in decision making. “Which would you prefer—pure rational knowledge of morality, separated from all experience and bringing with it a metaphysic of morals, or popular practical philosophy? It is easy to guess on which side the majority would stand!”(16). While it is difficult to separate personal experiences from moral decision making, Kant stands strong behind the use of reason to define morality. In regards to transparency this relates in the fact that it is never acceptable to justify a decision based on the situation. Instead reason should be used to make a decision that fulfills moral obligations.

As far as autonomy goes, Kant notes the importance of free will over imitation even in the Christian belief. . “Some have said that the moral life consists in ‘imitating Christ’, but imitation has no place in moral matters” (15). Kant uses this logic to emphasize the importance of autonomy and demonstrate that even in the case of religion, reason should overcome all. By using Biblical references, Kant is further extending his theories of morality to be truly universal and always objective. Imitation thus limits autonomy and should instead be used as a guide, or proof that a moral life can be led, rather than a set of unbreakable laws that should be followed simply because someone else has followed them before.

According to Kant’s categorical imperative, the people should never be used as means to an end, but rather as ends themselves. In Sibylle Rolf’s analysis of Kant, he relates this theory to historical references as well as the holy trinity in which the focus is on the end result, and it is understood that people are not to be used to achieve a goal but rather incorporated so that they achieve the same benefit from the process. This illustrates Kant’s idea of autonomy because by not taking advantage of others in order to achieve a goal, it encourages autonomy among all (Rolf 594).

In Kant’s work, The Metaphysics of Morals, he defines free will and autonomy in objective terms. “In so far as the activity is accompanied with the consciousness of the power of the action to produce the object, it forms an act of choice; if this consciousness is not conjoined with it, the activity is called a wish” (Kant 3). Because of this, according to Kant, the difference between free will and an unwilling action is consciousness. Thus reiterating Kant’s emphasis on reason as it pertains to both morality and free will.

In Kantian philosophy, the most important factor in determining a moral dilemma is reason. In an issue of transparency, Kant believes that it is always moral and necessary to be honest no matter the situation. In Kant’s belief, morality is never subjective and it is therefore the moral obligation of those involved to use reason to make the most moral decision. As far as autonomy goes, Kant also believes that reason is the most important factor.

As a public service, the media was expected to inform the people of Swine Flu for the sake of health and safety, however the framing of the information altered perception. Startling music played on news programs and images of travelers wearing protective face masks appeared on broadcasts and in print (Mahajan). The lack of transparency used the public as means to an end. By altering public perception of the Swine Flu Pandemic, news sources increased viewership as audiences were eager to find out new advancements in the story.

It was not just the mass public that fell victim to the Swine Flu scare. An epidemic has the ability to upset manufacturing, agriculture, and the economy as a whole. Agriculture was at risk from fear of contaminated pork. Fear of virus created a fear of crowds which could hinder sports, shopping, and entertainment industries, and travel and tourism were at risk from restrictions on international travel. Together the impacts on these industries had the potential to bring down the already struggling American economy (Bogoslaw).

And while so many American industries were at risk of loss from the Swine Flu scare, the media, healthcare and pharmaceutical industries were provided the opportunity to thrive. People were lining up to receive vaccinations and tests. Emergency rooms were filled with patients some with the virus, others fearing that they contracted the virus. The increased traffic to hospitals allowed the virus to spread quickly and further heighten the panic.

Pharmaceutical companies such as the Swiss company Roche, creator of Tamiflu were able to thrive as well. Tamiflu was prescribed to patients who had contracted Swine Flu, a medication which was never proven to treat the virus, yet received over $1billion in revenue due to the scare (Mahajan). Undoubtedly Roche was not opposed to the mass hysteria, as it allowed the company to thrive.

According to Kantian theory, the media coverage of the H1N1 outbreak was unethical. In Kant’s Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals he discusses the importance of morality in all situations. According to Kant, truthfulness should be used “unconditionally and without exceptions” (Kant 15). Kant believes that morality is very objective and therefore any unethical decision cannot be justified.

When the media does not provide trustworthy information to the public it is not fulfilling its purpose. According to the SPJ code of ethics, news content should “make certain that headlines, news teases and promotional material… do not misrepresent. They should not oversimplify or highlight incidents out of context.” Yet statistics published concerning the swine flu were taken out of context compared to yearly seasonal flus.

According to the CDC reports, the 2009 H1N1 virus caused between 63,000 and 153,000 hospitalizations media coverage shared these statistics with the public however what they did not mention was the fact that nearly 200,000 Americans are hospitalized with seasonal flus annually. News sources took information concerning the Swine Flu out of context and in turn used the people to create a hysteria.

This not only goes against Kant’s categorical imperative, but it also is a prime example of distorting the truth. Kant believes truthfulness is always necessary even if it results in negative consequences. Yet news coverage surrounding Swine Flu went against both the philosophical ideas of Kant, and the SPJ code of ethics. At the time, the distorted truth was not addressed for its manipulative qualities.

While news sources often set through their content, it is exceptionally deceptive when they collectively distort information in order to sway public opinion. In this case, the media limited the autonomy of the public by not acting autonomously. According to Rolf’s analysis of Kant, when people act autonomously and do not take advantage of others to achieve their own goals, it encourages autonomy among all (Rolf 594). Because news sources did not act autonomously and as a collective group used the public to accomplish their goals, they limited the autonomy of the public and caused them to feel uncertainty and panic about the virus.

While the media sought to create a panic, Medical Ethics Advisor gave advice to calm the public. “People, if they feel nervous about something, it’s better if you give [them] something concrete to do, and one of those things you can do is wash your hands more frequently than you normally.” President Obama even attempted to calm the public by suggesting also that Americans wash their hands frequently and cover their coughs in order to prevent contraction of the virus. Together the Medical Ethics Advisor and the government were attempting to reduce the panic and provide the public with essential information for the promotion of health and safety (Ethics and the H1N1 Flu).

Yet news sources continued to distort facts and statistics creating a hysteria. Swine flu was viewed as the largest scale pandemic since the black plague, while in reality it was not more dangerous than any other seasonal flu. Kantian theory would view this as an unethical solution to an ethical dilemma. Had the media covered the flu honestly and in context to other illnesses, it would not have created such a panic. News sources should have compared their statistics to past years in order to provide the public with proper context to what was going on. By not doing so they were forcing the public to panic.

Kant believes that autonomy is necessary to living a moral life and without reason we are unable to execute our free will. We cannot merely imitate the lives of others or even deities but should use them as evidence that moral actions are possible. However we should not forget Kant’s theory of the categorical imperative where he discusses the necessity to not treat others as means to an end. This theory helps to not only emphasize our own autonomy, but encourage the autonomy of others as we are told to not use them as agents to achieve our own goals. Between the conflict of transparency and autonomy in Kantian theory it is imperative to recognize the importance of reason in all ethical dilemmas, as it is what makes our decisions most ethical.

In modern society it is imperative for us as an audience to do research. The 2009 Swine Flu hysteria proves that when the public is not properly informed they are at the will of the media and are simply pawns to a preset agenda. While Kantian theory shows that the use of the public as means to an end is unethical, it is not enough to ensure that the media is not taking advantage of a captive audience. It is then up to the public to see the distortion of truth and fact check to put information into the proper context. While ethical philosophies and professional codes of ethics are in place, it is not enough to ensure that organizations and individuals will act ethically. In an ideal world, Kant’s determination to be truthful and ethical in all situations would be a universal goal. Everyone would abide by a common moral duty.

But the world is not perfect. Agendas are set and news organizations are profit driven. We cannot expect ethical decisions to be made around us, so we must seek the whole truth on our own and not succumb to the pre-packaged opinions created by the media.

Works Cited
Bogoslaw, D. (2009). Swine Flu: An Investor’s Overview. Businessweek Online, 4.
Britons least likely to take swine flu hygiene precautions, survey finds. (2009, October 05). The Guardian. Retrieved from http://www.theguardian.com/world/2012/oct/05/swine-flu-pandemic hygiene-precautions
Collignon, P. (2009, May25). Take a Deep Breath, Swine Flus Not That Bad. Crikey. Retrieved from http://www.crikey.com.au/2009/05/25/take-a-deep-breath-swine-flus-not-that-bad/.
Ethics and the H1N1 flu: A wake-up call for policy makers? (Cover story). (2009). Medical Ethics Advisor, 25(6), 61-64.

FLETCHER, L. (2009). SWINE FLU EMERGENCY. Good Morning America (ABC), 1.
Gavish , E. (2009, September 09). Harvard school of public health: Swine flu (h1n1) epidemic would harm 2/3 of u.s. businesses . NY Daily News. Retrieved from http://www.nydailynews.com/news/money/harvard-school-public-health-swine-flu-h1n1-epidemic-harm-2-3-u-s-businesses-article-1.403042
Kant, I. (2002). Groundwork for the metaphysics of morals New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Kant, I (1991). The metaphysics of morals. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Mahajan, R., & Kapoor, V. (2009). Pan(dem)ic Flu. JK Science, 11(4), 165-166.
ROLF, S. (2012). HUMANITY AS AN OBJECT OF RESPECT: IMMANUEL KANT’S ANTHROPOLOGICAL APPROACH AND THE FOUNDATION FOR MORALITY. Heythrop Journal, 53(4), 594-605. doi:10.1111/j.1468-2265.2009.00559.x
Rubin. (2009). Public perceptions, anxiety, and behaviour change in relation to the swine flu outbreak: cross sectional telephone survey. British Medical Journal , 2009(339), b2691. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2714687/
TIM JOHNSON, D. (2009). SWINE FLU. Nightline (ABC), 1.

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