It is often said that a famine cannot occur in a country with a free press. In other words, natural disasters become severe catastrophes only when corrective measures are not taken due to a lack of awareness. This point was driven home during the recent swine flu outbreak, which was often compared to the dreaded 1918 influenza pandemic.
While people often condemn the modern media for sensationalizing issues such as swine flu, consider the alternative. In John M. Barry’s excellent book on The Great Influenza, he points out that a major factor in the spread of the 1918 virus was wartime censorship. Newspapers did not report on the virus until long after it was in the population, and when they did the information was scanty and unhelpful. Likewise, public officials were slow to inform the public and were reluctant to admit that there was a problem. Why? Largely because people were worried about hurting wartime “morale” by talking about bad news. Some of this involved official censorship and some involved a culture of conformity created by Woodrow Wilson’s Administration. The result, one could say, was even more harmful to morale — hundreds of thousands of deaths.
While there are costs to media hype, muzzling the press directly or indirectly is usually more costly.