Yes, I was one of the 50 million people who downloaded Britain's Got Talent on YouTube to watch Susan Boyle sing her dear heart out. I laughed my ass off when Tina did Sarah and Amy did Hillary on Saturday Night Live, and I loved Jon Stewart's smart take-down of that Mad Money guy Jim Cramer. But when I first heard news of a deadly flu killing hundreds of people in Mexico, I didn't' go to YouTube, The Daily Show or Saturday Night Live to get the details. I read an AP story online.
To see what's buzzing in my little corner of New York City, I read Only the Blog Knows Brooklyn. It's gossipy, often snarky and a lot of fun. A few weeks ago, I forwarded a post to my sister to let her know that director Nancy Meyers was shooting a movie up the street from us, so that she could pretend to be passing by Meryl Streep's trailer at the moment she stepped out.
But when I found out about eight cases of swine flu in a school in Queens, New York, 12 miles from my home, I didn't read a neighborhood blog. I went to my doorstep and picked up my New York Times. My kids and I read the front page story--written by a team of reporters (some overseas)--to find out everything we needed to know. Over the next couple of days, I'm looking forward to hearing from Times reporter Gina Kolata, author of Flu: The Story of the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 and the Search for the Virus that Caused It and one of the country's foremost experts on the flu. She doesn't have a blog, so I'll read her story in the paper.
Like many other authors, earlier this month, a tweet informed me that a so-called "glitch" had knocked most of Amazon's LGBT themed books off of its main product search. I found out that my own novel had been de-listed via a post on my Facebook wall. But when my neighbor--who'd been on vacation to Mexico the week before--asked me about swine flu symptoms, I referred her to CNN.com. Somebody did tweet me this joke: "The Centers for Disease Control said the symptoms of swine flu include fever, aches and an uncomfortable desire to roll in the mud." And I did learn from her Facebook feed that a friend from high school is having leftovers for dinner.
I could definitely get some flu information from an online site that consolidates news stories. And I did. Daily Beast gave me a nice constellation of stories. It included a link to an old "Killer Bees" clip from Saturday Night Live that poked fun at a previous "health panic," 1974's invasion of African killer bees. But where did the Daily Beast get the informed, hard-core news stories posted on its site? The New York Times, AP, NPR.
In the end, the swine flu may go the way of killer bees and other health scares, fueled by drama-queen journalists and skittish consumers. God willing, it'll be no more than a late-night TV punch line. But what if it's not? Can blogs, Jon Stewart, news consolidators, Saturday Night Live, Youtube, Facebook and Twitter replace "real" journalism? Not if our lives depend on it.
Linda Villarosa is a writer and former New York Times health editor and reporter. Her novel "Passing for Black" came out last year. See the show "Writers Speak! A Potentially Regrettable Evening with WGA Comedy Writers," this Friday May 8th, 7:00 pm - 9:30 pm at Washington DC's Newseum. More WGA blogs about the event available here.