Killer Bug Ate My Face

We here at the Centre for Media Frenzy Monitoring have detected a sudden outbreak of screamingly alarmist headlines in even normally placid news organizations.  Set in bold type the size of your forearm, these so-called “killer bug” headlines have been chewing up newsprint at a frightening rate, and seem to be spreading from their natural environment of Fleet Street tabloids to the usually more restrained broadsheets.

However, we can assure you that there is no reason to panic.  What may look like the beginnings of an epidemic is in fact just a series of isolated incidents.  What we’re witnessing is not the onset of a new and terrifying scourge, but merely an unusual and temporary mutation of an instinct that lives in the brain pans of headline writers everywhere.  Normally, the tendency toward sensationalis-morbidicum slumbers harmlessly in your average journalist’s noggin.  But from time to time the circumstances are right for it to flare up with a vengeance.

And there are perhaps no more optimal circumstances than the opportunity to deploy the adjectival phrase “flesh-eating.”  It really doesn’t matter what noun follows.  Whether it’s flesh-eating cannibals, flesh-eating zombies or flesh-eating bacteria is almost irrelevant.  So all you kids out there, who may be dreaming of one day playing in the big leagues of professional journalism, take note: the chance to use the phrase “flesh-eating” doesn’t come along very often, so when it does, go for it, and don’t be afraid to splash it big-time.

Of course, there are other ingredients that make this particular editorial cocktail pack a legitimately blood-curdling wallop.  Just reading about it is enough to make your skin crawl.  There’s the speed with which the disease kills, like something out of a David Cronenberg movie.  There’s the fact that the treatment – amputation – is almost as chilling as the affliction.  There’s the fact that its sudden appearance supposedly has medical experts “baffled” – another favourite media term designed to ratchet the shock value one notch higher, because you can’t prevent what you don’t understand.

Even the rarity of the disease plays on our worst fears, because it only stokes the fires of foreboding.  In a climate primed by AIDS and increasingly nasty antibiotic-resistant infections, you don’t have to be a certified hypochondriac to worry about the possibility of real-life Andromeda strains.

So, all the elements are in place for a dark yarn to scare the bejeebers out of the punters.  The Star, a British tabloid, ran the inspired headline “Killer bug ate my face” – nice use of the first-person possessive there.  Not to be outdone, one of its competitors resorted to direct address with the headline “Dither and you die” – an injunction that sent every suggestible Brit with a blemish or a sore throat stampeding to the doctor’s office.

But never let it be said that the popular press stoops to fear-mongering.  If you look closely, you’ll notice that the coverage is structured according a carefully crafted logic of doublethink.  I quote from Thursday’s edition of the Ottawa Sun: “Scientists are baffled by a flesh-eating bug that’s killing people in hours.  But don’t panic – it’s rare.”

Notice the sequence.  First you give your readers the willies.  Then you tell them there’s no reason to be alarmed.  If you can master this trick, you may have all the makings of a professional

  • CBC Radio May 25, 1994