Falling in Line: News Media and Public Health Response During the 2009 H1N1 Outbreak in Canada

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Aylesworth-Spink, Shelley
science and technology studies , actor-network theory , media studies , biological citizenship , cultural studies
In this dissertation, I show how the high profile media story of a pandemic outbreak was a product of active societal agents and forces that fed off each other to shape, generate and exploit crises. Using media articles and interviews with public health leaders, public relations practitioners, and journalists who covered the 2009 H1N1 story in Canada, I combine media and communications studies, cultural studies and science and technology studies to explore how relevant social actors–in this case members of the media and public health officials–constructed the H1N1 pandemic as a public health crisis. I argue that the media used the circumstance of widespread health danger to invigorate their role and importance in the public sphere, to produce what they saw as sound discourse for the public, whom they believed were eager for balanced and objective information. In doing so, the media promoted the idea of their audiences being bound together in bodily risk, and I argue that this tendency encouraged the idea of “biological citizenship” to create value in their news stories. I also contend that public health officials set up critical limitations by failing to recognize the news media as a complex mediator. The media response included strong elements of this failure. Public health and state leaders thought that journalists and their work could be controlled, yet had few tools to constrain the media or transmit a version of their messages. A breakdown in the management of the crisis ensued. Finally, I describe how public health and the media furthered a discourse that an ill and endangered body could be made resilient by a restored nation. This argument came to life with the H1N1 pandemic, when stability hinged on a nationalist frame and the population was invited to find comfort by sharing ways to reduce the global and invisible threat. I conclude by suggesting alternative approaches to the use of the news media in public health work, arguing that the extreme volume and intensity of media coverage during this outbreak should act as the catalyst for new thinking and approaches.
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