Social Construction of Three Influenza Pandemics in the New York Times

By Blakely, Debra E. | Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, Winter 2003 | Go to article overview

Social Construction of Three Influenza Pandemics in the New York Times


Blakely, Debra E., Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly


Study of the coverage of three influenza pandemics examined the social construction of influenza over time. Applying three broad frames to 835 New York Times articles, the study demonstrated that the social construction of influenza did change over time, and that these changes were reflected in public-health policy frames. This research demonstrates how the popularization of science changed the social construction of disease in America.

Infectious diseases are part and parcel of human social systems.1 Moreover, while the concept of disease is always a social and historical product of culture, most people develop a concept of disease through news.2 Journalists report epidemics and diseases because of intense public interest in medical events.3 Accordingly, the media's role in articulating concepts about disease deserves analytical consideration.4

Influenza pandemics make for a particularly compelling topic because influenza is a continuing story with worldwide impact. The 1918 Spanish flu pandemic alone is said to have caused more than fifty-one million deaths worldwide.5 An influenza epidemic is defined as a sudden and rapid outbreak affecting many people within a community or a region at one time. Pandemics have an even greater impact, involving a wider geographic area and affecting an exceptionally large proportion of the population in a country or several countries. While influenza epidemics occur almost every winter, pandemics are less frequent. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recognizes the1918 Spanish flu, the 1957 Asian flu, and the 1968 Hong Kong flu as three influenza pandemics involving the United States. However, documentation suggests three previous pandemics, in 1650,1847, and 1889.6

As early as 1892, a Berlin professor and pathologist, Richard Pfeiffer, isolated a bacterium that he identified as a cause of influenza. In 1918, Pfeiffer's bacterium was identified in several influenza victims at Fort Riley, Kansas. Shortly thereafter, and well into the next year, this strain became known as Spanish influenza.7 The earliest victims were soldiers stationed in over-crowded camps preparing for war. The path of destruction went from Fort Riley in March 1918 to France in May and worldwide by July.8 By August, the first U.S. civilians began contracting the disease and mortality rates began to soar. The twelfth of August 1918 has been identified as the day that Americans were hit with the world's deadliest flu virus. It began when the Bergensfjord, a Norwegian liner, docked at a Brooklyn, New York, Army base with eleven semiconscious passengers; other victims had been buried at sea. Within hours, one of the eleven died at a nearby hospital.

A story by Katherine Anne Porter, a popular author and journalist in the early twentieth century who herself survived the 1918 flu, suggests the devastation this disease caused:

'The men are dying like flies out there anyway. This funny new disease. Simply knocks you into a cocked hat.'

'It seems to be a plague,' said Miranda, 'something out of the Middle Ages. Did you ever see so many funerals, ever?'9

After this fictional character, Miranda, contracts the flu, Porter writes:

'All the theaters and nearly all the shops and restaurants are closed, and the streets have been full of funerals all day and ambulances all night.'10

Reporters have been covering science issues since the first American newspapers. During the nineteenth century, stories about science tended to focus more on the bizarre." During the 1890s and thereafter, however, systematic investigation was popular across all disciplines, and many journalists shared a popular admiration of science, with some reporters actually trained in the sciences.12

At the same time that science reporting began to mature, medical history was literally made in the arena of infectious diseases. In 1884, Robert Koch first identified the cholera bacillus and opened the door to germ theories and magic bullet cures.

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