Tuesday, May 09, 2006

No thanks, I read the book

Tonight those of you either overcome by some horrible fascination with what the media can do to a serious issue or who accidentally tune in to the ABC crapfest, "Fatal Contact: Bird Flu in America," will see what sounds like real fearmongering in action. I'm taking a pass. We've inveighed here enough about fearmongering about fearmongering. Our position is that if the truth is unsettling, it is at least the truth.

But this movie isn't the truth, it's fiction. And the fiction isn't meant to provide awareness and understanding, unlike the faux blog that appeared in the scientific journal Nature by science journalist Declan Butler. It is designed purely to make money for ABC during "sweeps week," where ratings determine advertising rates.

The ABC news division, like other big media news outlets, has made a credible effort to provide factual summaries of the evolving bird flu problem at their website, Bird Flu: Fears, Facts and Fiction. But the news division is separate from the entertainment division (at least in theory, although the nightly news and 20/20 seem to breach the separation distressingly often). In this case, anyway, the news division seems to be distancing itself from the network's disaster movie:
A few weeks ago, we began hearing about ABC Entertainment's plan to broadcast "Fatal Contact: Bird Flu in America," a made-for-TV movie depicting a massive avian flu outbreak in the United States. Over the course of the past week, we began to see promotional trailers for the ABC movie, which featured what appeared to be a "worst case" outbreak scenario. The promos reminded some of us of movies like Michael Crichton's "The Andromeda Strain," a 1971 science fiction classic about a lethal virus epidemic, and 1995's "Outbreak," directed by Wolfgang Petersen.

After watching the movie promos, a discussion developed among ABCNews.com writers, producers and editors focusing on how we can best share the depth of our website's avian flu coverage with an online audience which may flock to our website after viewing the ABC-TV movie on May 9.

Our ongoing news broadcast and web coverage of the H5N1 virus has been cautious, measured and responsible. Our coverage provides our readers a dependable and up-to-date resource on global developments relating to the spread of avian flu, gathered from diverse scientific, governmental and medical resources.

None of us in the newsroom have had a chance to view the "Fatal Contact" movie in advance of its May 9 debut. We do hope, however, that those visitors who do come to our Avian Flu page following the movie's broadcast on Tuesday will find a comprehensive and useful resource on a developing and unpredictable story.
By all means go to the ABC bird flu site if you wish. Our own choice, of course, is our sister project, The Flu Wiki, which has several thousand pages of content and links to many other sources of information. Unlike ABC's disaster movie, it is meant to empower people, not paralyze them with fear for ratings sake.

But then we don't make any money here or at the Flu Wiki. We have no advertisers and we charge no admission. Maybe we're doing something wrong.