Use of the term "Swine Flu"

Review from the Office of the Ombudsman | English Services

This office received 62 complaints concerning the use of the term “swine flu.” A number of people wrote individual complaints while a substantial number signed on to a form letter protesting against the usage. Some correspondents said the term was inaccurate. One said that “neither the virus nor the illness have anything to do with swine…”

Most acknowledged that there was a basis for the swine description but argued that it was unnecessary to use “swine flu” when other terms were just as accurate. Most suggested H1N1. The argument here is that the use of the term swine flu might suggest that the flu was transmitted by eating pork. In addition, many made the claim that the swine industry was suffering directly as a result of the publicity surrounding the flu.

CBC's Executive Editor, Esther Enkin, replied that the News Service would continue using the phrase “swine flu” on the grounds of clarity and accuracy. She pointed out that there are a number of strains of A-H1N1 (the overall descriptor for these types of flu strains); that, in fact, there was another strain this year (Brisbane) that had different characteristics than “swine flu” and was resistant to some of the drugs used to treat the latter. She also said that it was important to remind people that one could not get the flu from eating pork.

Some complainants rejected Ms. Enkin's comments and asked for a review.


Perhaps we should start with some principles from CBC's Journalistic Standards and Practices. CBC journalists should be guided by three basics:

Accuracy
The information conforms with reality and is not in any way misleading or false. This demands not only careful and thorough research but a disciplined use of language and production techniques, including visuals.

Integrity
The information is truthful, not distorted to justify a conclusion. Broadcasters do not take advantage of their power to present a personal bias.

Fairness
The information reports or reflects equitably the relevant facts and significant points of view; it deals fairly and ethically with persons, institutions, issues and events.

Application of these principles will achieve the optimum objectivity and balance that must characterize the CBC's information programs.

Any act of CBC journalism must be measured against these principles.

In this case, we should go to expert knowledge on the condition itself. From the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention we find valuable information on the influenza. I will excerpt relevant passages:

“Swine influenza is a respiratory disease of pigs caused by type A influenza virus…Swine flu viruses do not normally infect humans. However, sporadic human infections with swine flu occurred. Most commonly, these cases occur in person with direct exposure to pigs (e.g. children near pigs at a fair or workers in the swine industry)….In the past CDC received reports of approximately one human swine influenza virus infection every one to two years in the U.S., but from December 2005 through February 2009, 12 cases of human infection with swine influenza have been reported.”

As we know, that number escalated from there both in the U.S. and Canada, and other parts of the world. At first, agencies referred to the strain as “swine flu.” Latterly, some of the more politically sensitive groups—the World Health Organization, for example—adopted other terminology, suggesting A-H1N1. In my survey of more scientifically oriented sites, I found fairly common use of “swine flu” for the very reason that A-H1N1 was, strictly speaking, not scientifically descriptive enough. The strain we are discussing is a sub-type of A-H1N1 with its own characteristics that distinguish it from other types of A-H1N1.

I did find an effort by organizations like the CDC and the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota to develop alternate, but accurate terminology. Some have suggested A-H1N1(2009), but, as we heard from Ms. Enkin, there are other strains coming out this year. Both the CDC and the CIDRAP have referred to the strain as “2009 Novel H1N1 Virus.”

But I should note that, according to CIDRAP, “The novel A H1N1 virus appears to be of swine origin and contains a unique combination of gene segments that has not been identified in the past…” It also says, “A recent molecular analysis of the novel H1N1 virus demonstrates that the virus possesses a distinctive evolutionary trait (genetic distinctness) that may be characteristic in pig-human interspecies transmission of influenza A.”

It appears clear that we can dispose of the notion that this strain has nothing to do with swine. It clearly does. So the term is “accurate.”

The next question is whether it is fairly used in context. Many prominent journalistic organizations feel it is the best descriptor: The New York Times, the BBC, The Toronto Star, among others, continue to use the term to specify which strain one is discussing. Some have accused the CBC and other outlets of “scare-mongering” and “just going for ratings” by using the swine flu designation. While neither the Times, the BBC nor the Star is averse to increased circulation, none is noted as a purveyor of tabloid style news to “hype” circulation. I think the same can be said, generally speaking, for the CBC.

Many of the letters, particularly the form letter, argue that CBC has some obligation for the health of the pork industry:

“Many of the pork producers have suffered through numerous issues and continue to raise their animals. There are a number of factors that have affected the pork industry such as the fluctuating Canadian dollar, the ever increasing feed costs, the economic crisis, the inflated price of diesel and gas, and to top it all off the unfortunate naming of a flu virus; not even a super- bug; as ‘swine flu' instead of using its official title of H1N1.”

The letter goes on to imply that the CBC has a role in “assisting with the rebuilding of the pork industry.”

As the letter states, pork producers have had problems over the last few years, well before the advent of the flu. I hasten to add that I am not an expert on the industry, but I note from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada statistics that, year over year, pork exports (fresh, frozen and processed) are down slightly from last year (through the end of May). The main cause would seem to be large percentage drops in China and Hong Kong.

I also note that recent changes in U.S. regulations have had an impact on sales into that market. In addition, the weather in Canada has reduced the amount of barbecuing that usually happens at this time of year. In fact, it appears that the industry faces a veritable “perfect storm” of troubles, of which the flu appellation appears to be a small contributor.

I also surveyed my Ombudsman colleagues from around the world who might have dealt with the issue. Some countries refer to the outbreak as “Mexican” flu, its reputed country of origin. The analogies would seem to be “Spanish” flu (which had obvious effects in Spain but probably originated in the U.S.) and “Hong Kong” flu. More recently, we have dealt with “avian” flu, another A-H1N1 variant that seems most analogous to this year's outbreak, although genetically different.

A somewhat analogous organization, National Public Radio in the U.S., also continues to use “swine flu,” as well as “novel H1N1,” although there was a feeling that they might move over time toward the latter.

So we can see that, contrary to most of the complaints, “swine flu” is both an accurate and, by and large, a fair description of the influenza, more precise, scientifically, than A- H1N1. That being said, it would not be inaccurate to refer to the strain by its emerging title: novel H1N1 2009.

One other aspect deserves review: Ms. Enkin noted how important it is that the public be reminded that eating cooked pork poses no risk of acquiring the flu we have been discussing. I agree, although my horseback survey of stories on radio and television does not indicate that there has been a concerted effort in this regard. I should note that CBC.ca is a constant presence and has appropriate backgrounders on the strain.

Conclusion

The use of the term “swine flu” does not violate CBC's Journalistic Standards and Practices. It is an accurate descriptor and is scientifically more precise than H1N1 or A-H1N1.

The question then becomes one of style—something to be judged by the editors: what term is best to use for ease of understanding and in fairness to all concerned. Listeners, by and large, remember the condition as “swine flu.” People actively engaged in the swine industry understandably would wish to avoid the label.

In years past, editors have been satisfied with names such as “Hong Kong” and “Spanish,” as well as “avian.” So, from a layman's point of view, it is clear that there is not an absolute standard requiring the genetic history of the influenza to be flagged in its name. Editors do have a choice of several appellations, all of which would accurately signal the flu's origin.

Vince Carlin
CBC Ombudsman