Evanson: Flipping the bird

BY KETIH EVANSON | MAY 01, 2015 5:00 AM

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The latest and greatest fear is upon us in the agriculture and food industry. The USDA has confirmed nearly 10 million cases of bird flu exist in the state of Iowa alone, giving broadcast journalists and health experts another hot topic to disseminate among media circles, blogs, and TV sets. 

Between the headlines, appealing to the provocative senses of the average media consumer by using buzzwords and such phrases as “outbreak,” “state of emergency,” and “mass spreading of disease” — the reporting of an agricultural phenomenon sounds more like the plotline to a postapocalyptic movie or an episode of the “Walking Dead.”

The situation should be taken seriously.  Millions of egg-laying hens are sick and dying. The financial blow that large commercial chicken farms take when their entire livelihood is essentially on “sick leave” is devastating. As far as the state is concerned, nearly one-fifth of all eggs in the United States are produced in Iowa alone — that’s nearly 15 billion eggs per year. It cannot be understated how much Iowa needs the egg industry to be robust and prosperous. Sales from eggs average nearly $2 billion annually and generate $19.3 million in state tax revenues.

This is why the damage done by the avian influenza cannot afford to be further sparked by fear mongering. The first thing people want to know about a new spread of virus or disease is the simple question, “Can I get it?” The Ebola viruse’s diagnoses last fall in the United States perfectly illustrated just how delusional that agenda setters in newsrooms can be. And that sensationalism is what provoked the nation to believe that this could very well could be the disease that ends humanity as we know it. Yet here we are today, living and breathing.

Do the American people have a right to know about the issues and events in the news that surround them and affect their lives? Safeguarding farmers in the form of advocacy journalism as a crutch to effectively keep the public from knowing about potential risks is wrong. In the same regard, it matters how words are used. It matters how news reporting is conducted, and the themes it consists of. 

The fact is no one in the United States has ever died of avian flu. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has maintained a firm stance that the risk to humans is low. Scientists have long stated that H5N2 avian viruses cannot attach themselves to human cells, making it impossible for people in the United States to catch it. While possible mutations could change this, it is crucial that tests and research are done periodically.

Exploitive reports on agricultural disease have become almost cyclical. The new and latest buzz is desired to the extract the latest fear arising from the new flu. The last one, 2009, was in the form of the inaccurate “H1NI swine flu” misnomer that spawned millions of people to get impromptu vaccines and to boycott pork, despite the virus having nothing to do with the ingestion of pork or pork products.

Herein lies the different between truth and accuracy. The statement “there is a concern this disease could potentially affect consumers” is true. But it’s not accurate. The anxiety over a virus being transmitted by chickens laying eggs to people eating breakfast at the table can be tampered, given what the facts are currently. In the meantime, your local farmer is actually being affected right now — by things, which are true, and by things which are inaccurate.

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