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As In The Past, Media's 'Heroes And Villains Within This Pandemic' Leave Some Voices Unheard

Interior of Red Cross House and U.S. General Hospital No. 16 in New Haven, Connecticut, during the influenza epidemic in 1918 or 1919. The beds are isolated by curtains.
American National Red Cross photograph collection
/
Library of Congress / LC-DIG-anrc-02679
Interior of Red Cross House and U.S. General Hospital No. 16 in New Haven, Connecticut, during the influenza epidemic in 1918 or 1919. The beds are isolated by curtains.

When an epidemic — or pandemic — strikes, the media becomes the frame for the public's understanding. These news narratives also serve as essential pieces of the historical record.

Katherine Foss dug into seven epidemics spanning hundreds of years in her recent book from UMass Press, "Constructing the Outbreak: Epidemics in Media & Collective Memory," to learn what of these times has been preserved, and what has been forgotten. 

Foss, a professor at Middle Tennessee State University, describes what might have been the scene in 1721 Boston, where there was a smallpox outbreak.

Katherine Foss, professor: I suspect that what they were seeing was a very different experience than even what was covered in the local newspapers, especially because we didn't have a lot of local coverage until James Franklin started the [newspaper] New England Courant in August, whereas the epidemic itself started in June. So I suspect that what they were seeing was a horror much greater than anything that was being described in the local newspapers.

I say, 'I suspect,' because we don't have diaries or other personal testimonies from that era, but based on the notes of the town leaders, it was a very, very dire time in which people weren't even walking the streets for fear of smallpox. Everything had shut down. They weren't having public gatherings. People were selling the collections of those who had died of smallpox. [Those were] experiences that we weren't quite getting in the newspaper, whereas the newspaper focus was more on this debate about inoculation.

Carrie Healy, NEPM: From an emerging media landscape of then, zooming forward to the media of today, has that debate over vaccine hesitancy evolved significantly over the last three hundred years?

It has — I would say, actually yes and no. Because many of the core arguments about inoculation that first came about in 1721, we see now as far as the natural order and debates about what makes sense as far as how to protect one's body, questions about safety, questions about disease transmission — especially as we've seen with our new vaccines now, about if a vaccinated person can continue to transmit the virus? Questions about religion and how that connects.

What's changed since then is that we have so much scientific evidence to demonstrate the safety of vaccines, to demonstrate the effectiveness of vaccines, as well as 300 years of clear evidence about what vaccines, and how vaccines, have shaped and improved public health.

So before social media existed, it was print, TV and radio coverage being the only way that people got the facts. Can you explain how, for example, a 1952 polio outbreak was somewhat overlooked because of the media?

Back then, it was much harder to get one's voice into a media outlet, because the gatekeepers were not just much stricter, but there weren't as many opportunities to write about experience.

But we've always seen this trend of competing or conflicting discourses, meaning that if there's kind of a bigger story, media outlets tend to focus on that bigger story.

So in 1952, that polio epidemic, which was the biggest one in American history, was really overshadowed by the scientific research and coverage of the scientific research towards the [researcher Jonas] Salk [developed] vaccine and other successful vaccines.

What's changed since then is that we have so many opportunities for citizen-produced media through our social media posts or blogs, TikTok videos, YouTube videos, other ways that regular people can then communicate their experiences and thoughts.

Over the course of researching this book and looking at outbreaks, did you find that there are narrative accounts and perspectives actually missing from the historical record?

Oh, absolutely. There are so many stories that I wanted to be able to tell for my book, for every chapter that got outside of the typical person whose story is told, which primarily were Caucasian men who held power in a community. So I wish that I had gotten more of the stories of the different people affected by disease at different moments.

But I will say, there are some remarkable breakthroughs. For example, in 1793, the leaders of the Free African Society published their own pamphlet, which told their story. And so that was one thing I was looking for, for every epidemic I studied, was how do we get outside of the typical story told?

Have these historically marginalized voices in outbreaks of the past fared any better during the current coronavirus pandemic?

I would say yes and no. So our ability now to have citizen-produced media allows more voices to break through, allows more stories to be told. But I would say in mainstream news media, we're still typically getting a fairly limited scope of perspectives — both kind of framed heroes and villains within this pandemic, while leaving out many of the different voices and experiences.

Is there a suggestion that you would make for media, for me to pass along to my colleagues — if there was something that we should change or we should look at or we should be preserving in this moment before COVID-19 is gone?

I would recommend that all journalists look to tell the stories that would otherwise be untold. So tell the stories of different people, in different communities, in different occupations, racial diversity, the stories of children. Because these are the tales that we want to preserve for future generations to know about this pandemic. This is what I would have wanted for the past pandemics that I studied.

Did it help you in any way having this book basically going to press as the coronavirus spread across the U.S.?

It was a bizarre turn of events that I got the proofs for the book one year ago as the world was shutting down.

And I would say, in some ways, it helped me make sense or see what was coming in terms of media coverage. Because we have seen a similar pattern of media coverage to this, except that this moment is much longer.

But, in other ways, I found it even more challenging, knowing what kind of devastation I had read about and what could happen to society. What disease can do to society, as we've seen, is horrific, and not something that I had experienced in my lifetime before.

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