Ebola: Are the media helping or hurting?

A poll from today's Denver Post, probably representative of much of the country.
A poll from today’s Denver Post

We have a huge problem in the country right now, and it’s been created by our news media. No, scratch that. The problem is our media. It seems like every outlet in the US is devoting a huge amount of its time and space to Ebola. Far, far too much time and space.

It was bad enough when, for weeks, they covered the Ebola outbreak in Africa as though it were a full-blown global pandemic. But it’s not even close. Roughly 7,000 cases and 3,100 deaths is not a pandemic. It’s scarcely a drop in the bucket of the world’s population of 7 billion — an infinitesimal .000001%. Get a grip, people. Where’s your sense of proportion?

And then, lo and behold, all that fear mongering came home to roost. A case of Ebola was diagnosed in Dallas. A single case. Just one. And, preconditioned by the media’s 24/7 drumbeat of terror (cue the Jaws theme), it seems the nation is verging on panic. CONTAGION!! Right here in the USA!

Now the responsible media, if there are any, must wrestle with a problem of their own making. They (particularly cable news) have been hyping the story in every way possible since Ebola first appeared in several African nations. But now one case has made it to the US (3 or 4 if you count Americans infected while overseas). And after several days of the wildest, most irresponsible reporting, speculation, and conjecture, news outlets have to decide how to deal with the widespread fear they’ve generated. Even if they limit themselves to press conferences and interviews with knowledgeable medical professionals, they are still talking about Ebola.

Unfortunately, a large portion of the American public knows only that Ebola has been in the headlines for days because it has spread to the US. It must be serious, it must be dangerous, it must be everywhere because it’s in the headlines 24/7. There’s no critical reading or research. No looking beneath the headlines to find the facts. They trust the media to do that for them. And the headlines say EBOLA IS HERE!

The media’s failure to exercise some self-restraint and maintain some appropriate proportionality in their reporting has convinced far too many that we’re on the verge of an Ebola epidemic in America. And now it’s too late for news outlets to take it back, to undo it. In their belated effort to educate and reassure the public, they must necessarily keep talking about Ebola. Only this time, of course, they really mean it.

Any attempt here to recount all the reasons why Ebola is not a threat to the United States would be futile. By now readers have most likely drawn their own conclusions. There is certainly ample press coverage to support those conclusions, whatever they might be.

And that’s the fault of the media. The only information out there should be calm, factual, responsible reporting that leads to only one logical conclusion: Ebola is not a threat to America.

17 comments

  1. You’re right PT, the problem is the media. Still, it would’ve been nice if the Dallas case had demonstrated how “well prepared we are” for such an event as all the reports up to that time had said we were…

    1. Sure. But I think of it as a trial run, a test of the system to show where any weaknesses might be, and a lesson about what needs to be in place. It appeared, for example, that no plan was in place for cleaning up biologically hazardous materials outside a hospital setting. Everyone knows now what needs to be done and what to look out for.

  2. Actually, I hesitate to blame the media for this. I think it goes deeper. The problem is American culture and lack of science education. The media are businesses and they accordingly respond to public demand for what most interests (and scares) them. The National Enquirer and its ilk are thriving.

    Journalism standards do apply, but those extend to accuracy and completeness of coverage and when I pay attention to the news I hear clear and repeated explanations from authorities about the difficulty of transmission of ebola (it’s not airborne!) and how sanitation and public facilities here differ so markedly from those in Africa.

    If the drumbeat of repetition is driving hysteria, that’s too bad but I can’t blame the coverage. Any educated and thoughtful person would realize that there are many things worse. Hundreds of people die every year, probably thousands, from vaccine denial alone. Then there’s gun violence, medical overdoses of prescriptions, illegal drugs, and not wearing seat belts, to name a few.

    Let’s not kill the messenger. If the main media were to start parsing, backgrounding and analyzing the news according to their perception of its implications, their advertising would shrink to, well, that of one news organization that actually does that: PBS News Hour. Ouch. 🙄

    1. Yes, to a large extent the problem is grounded in our culture and lack of science education (or even general education). “Any educated and thoughtful person would realize that there are many things worse.” That’s the problem; a frightening (yes, frightening) number of Americans (including some of our “journalists”) are neither educated nor thoughtful. Of course it’s profitable for media to pander to the masses, but it’s also irresponsible to knowingly hype and dramatize something like Ebola just to make a buck.

      You and I have the advantage of good educations. We think critically, we seek information from reliable sources, we understand the odds. Too many Americans do not. I’d gladly shoot any messenger who doesn’t consider this when reporting on something as deadly serious as Ebola.

        1. What’s wrong with being an elitist snob if what you say is true? A lot of idealists that I know wouldn’t have enough brains to get a decent headache. Be a snob and be proud! 🙂 🙂 🙂

          How does MR Wheeler get that delightful smiley?

        2. I suppose it’s similar to what a cousin once told me when I accused him of being conceited. “It’s not conceit if it’s true,” he replied. It still sounded like conceit to me. Oh well …

          That particular smiley is an eye roll — : roll : with no spaces. You can see the code if you highlight/select his smiley. 🙄 Well, I did it a minute ago but now I can’t see it.

  3. (My brother alway said that “conceited” comment. Annoying….was that a phrase of the era, i wonder? Funny how things go in and out of popularity.)
    The media are so much like that very annoying pompom girl in high school that would bounce and cheer at anything …(which was funny when she didn’t listen to the whole thing and it was out of place…like for the wrong team…)
    Media is what they are – looking for viewers and revenue for the owners.
    Little real news available now – mostly glossy magazine mentality stuff
    The med community locally indicates the whole thing has been mismanaged….maybe if the CDC/homeland had spent less energy on “How to Survive a Zombie Attack” they would have had flow charts including clearing room/vehicle where identified patient was and had infectious disease material removal permits/companies up and running.
    At least the mess pointed out some of the huge problems with the electronic records software (which docs here have been saying works great for data mining and billing, but is defective as far as patient care – so most docs are doing both paper and ER patient records.)
    Oh, well, we’ll see. But I’m staying out of crowds….flu season, you know.

  4. Before the print media starting folding, a trend still continuing, they provided most of the reporting being done around the world. It was picked up off the wires by the electronic media. Now, with very few reporters out there, the TV guys only have a few stories to fill up their air time. I think that’s the real reason for the overkill on a single story.

    1. The explanation is sound. But those TV guys are well aware they are doing it and ought to be more responsible about trumpeting Ebola news 24/7 to the virtual exclusion of anything else.

      1. Those talking heads on television are entertainers, not journalists. Unfortunately, they now pretty much are “the media” in the U.S. It’s a stretch to believe they will be responsible, although it would be wonderful if they were. Totally agree with you that most of them know exactly what they are doing. Sad.

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