JULY 1918 - The 1918 Influenza Virus and The Baltimore Sun

Photo Caption and Credit: Emergency hospital during the influenza epidemic, Camp Funston, Kansas in 1918. (Courtesy of the National Museum of Health and Medicine and Digitally enhanced by rawpixel).

By: Lillian Flaherty

The severity of the deadly influenza virus that rocked the globe over a century ago was downplayed in the Baltimore Sun newspaper. Influenza of 1918, otherwise known as the Spanish flu, killed some 675,000 Americans but the spread of it could have been mitigated with honest media coverage of the illness. 

Soon after World War I came to an end in 1918, millions more lost their lives to warfare of a different kind: the Influenza virus. Many news outlets in the U.S., such as the Baltimore Sun, minimized their reports about Influenza because “they didn’t want their enemies to think that the disease had weakened their troop’s strength as much as it had,” according to Dr. Marian Jones, social historian, and ethicist of public health at the University of Maryland. The Baltimore Sun’s disservice to the people posed life-threatening consequences to those who were not aware of the flu’s true harshness. 

Additionally, journalists reported minimally on the virus in 1918 because they were uncertain of it. “Health officers in Baltimore knew what was happening – the reason for downplaying it was that there were still competing theories of what caused people to get sick,” says Dr. Schoch-Spana, a medical anthropologist who studied how the Baltimore newspaper covered the pandemic. Dr. John D. Blake, the Baltimore Sun’s city health commissioner in 1918, referred to the pandemic in a September 26th article as the “same old influenza the physicians have recognized and treated for a good many years” (Baltimore Sun Editorial Board, 2020).

As a result of Dr. Blake’s misleading remarks and refusal to close down public gatherings, the media was influenced by him and other officials, and the virus quickly spread. The flu was infecting many at the time and ironically, Baltimore, which greatly downplayed it, was one of the “first cities struck” according to an NCBI workshop summary (Knobler et al., 2005, p. 63). 

Today, a similar event is taking place. The United States could have suppressed the proliferation of COVID-19 deaths if it were not for the delayed reports of its severity. As of November 1, the U.S. is nearing 231,000 deaths attributed to Coronavirus. This number, however, is constantly changing.  “Certainly, if leaders had paid closer attention to scientists back in January, we would have had a much better response,” says Dr. Eric Toner, Senior Scholar with the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.

Government officials and certain media outlets today have been criticized for the spread of misinformation about the Coronavirus. In early February at a campaign rally in New Hampshire, President Donald Trump, in response to concerns about the Coronavirus,  said that when it gets a little warmer, it will “miraculously” go away. On February 24th, the president assured Americans on Twitter that “the coronavirus is very much under control in the USA.” This information has been circulated by news outlets such as Fox, and has undermined the death rate from the coronavirus. “This led to Fox viewers [that] have been influenced by this coverage to take the pandemic less seriously than others—and in some cases, take fewer precautions,” says Dr. Jones. 

Instead of ignoring the mistakes made by journalists in the past, we need to learn from them to provide true and crucial information.

Works Cited:
Baltimore Sun Editorial Board. (2020, March 18). Pandemic lessons from Baltimore’s reaction to the 1918 ‘Spanish flu’: COMMENTARY. The Baltimore Sun. https://www.baltimoresun.com/opinion/editorial/bs-ed-0319-1918-flu-baltimore-20200318-cu7jhknfczekfezf5kuk5g7d5q-story.html. 
History.com Editors. (2010, October 12). Spanish Flu. History.com. https://www.history.com/topics/world-war-i/1918-flu-pandemic. 
Institute of Medicine (US) Forum on Microbial Threats; Knobler, S. L., Mack, A., Mahmoud, A., Lemon, S. M.. (2005). The Threat of Pandemic Influenza: Are We Ready? Workshop Summary. NCBI. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK22148/. 
Relman, E., & Epstein, K. (2020, February 28). Fox News is downplaying the coronavirus even though its older audience is more vulnerable to the virus. Business Insider. https://www.businessinsider.com/fox-news-is-downplaying-the-coronavirus-to-more-vulnerable-audience-2020-2. 
Walker, C. (2020, April 10). The ‘forgotten pandemic’: What researchers can learn from the 1918 flu that devastated Baltimore. The Baltimore Sun. https://www.baltimoresun.com/coronavirus/bs-md-coronavirus-influenza-pandemic-lessons-20200410-4a3y7scev5hzzlwydikjbhdk7a-story.html. 
Original interviews: 
Dr. Marian Jones, social historian, and ethicist of public health at the University of Maryland 
Dr. Schoch-Spana, a medical anthropologist who studied how the Baltimore newspaper covered the pandemic 
Dr. Eric Toner, Senior Scholar with the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security