Author: Lauren Meyer, Loyola University
Ebola. It is a 5 letter word that has been causing mass hysteria in the past few weeks; that is, if you have been keeping up with American media. Since the first case of Ebola emerged in the U.S. on October 6th, the media has been flooding information on television screens across the country about a virus that one would think has killed thousands of Americans. But that is the crux of the problem: it has not killed thousands of Americans rather it has killed over 4,800 people in West Africa. Ebola has been ravaging through Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone since early March 2014, though it really began to escalate this past August, yet the media coverage has been almost nonexistent. The first time that the media began to pay attention to the epidemic was when it finally involved a patient in the United States. The diagnosis of Thomas Eric Duncan, who was the first patient to be diagnosed with Ebola in the United States who sadly passed away on October 8th, triggered a wave of panic that then resulted in hospitals and cities across the country re-evaluating their procedures for the possibility of such a case showing up on their doorstep. But why all the concern only when the virus reaches American shores?
When it was revealed that two health care workers who treated Mr. Duncan, Nina Pham and Amber Vinson, contracted the disease, the frenzy intensified. While it is understandable to ask questions about if proper precautions are being put in place and if we are equipping our healthcare officials and hospitals with the means necessary to deal with the Ebola virus, there is no need to create an environment that increases the hype of a disease that will not spread through the United States like it has in West Africa. The United States has the infrastructure and means necessary to handle such a virus, and with the science indicating that the virus is not transmitted through the air, like the flu, it should be up to the media to calm fears rather than instigate and heighten them.
With the height of the Ebola crisis in West Africa still ongoing, and only projecting to get worse, media coverage is still intently focusing on those in the West who have been affected with the disease. There were relatively low levels of interest on the Ebola virus itself until it affected a patient in the United States. Not only is this occurring on television and print media but on social media as well, as Facebook and Twitter posts about Ebola started to emerge more after Mr. Duncan came back to the United States and was diagnosed with the virus. There is an “Us vs. Them,” “First World vs. Third World,” mentality that is entrenched in the psyche of the American media, and sadly some of the American public, which results in selective compassion, cherry picking when and who we should direct our empathy towards. This is especially true considering that profit and television ratings are at the core of importance for cable news. As details emerged about Dr. Craig Spencer, the healthcare worker who landed in New York City from Guinea and tested positive for Ebola, the cable media became inundated with sensationalism, creating a frenzy that resulted in total twenty-four hour coverage. The headlines emphasized that Ebola had “arrived in New York City”, and as a result, if it could reach the Big Apple, we should assume that was it would be coming to our town or city next.
When a tragic or massive event occurs, such as the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17, the crisis in Ukraine, or in this case, the spread of the Ebola virus to the United States, the media becomes infatuated with covering the incident from every angle, at every moment. Now, from a general perspective, attempting to cover all aspects of a story in a timely fashion in order to factually inform viewers of what is actually occurring seems like a respectable thing to do. But there is just one problem: “factual” reporting is not what is being done. Exciting and provoking language, eye-catching graphics, and baseless assumptions are being used in place of accuracy and precision, and yet, though people may continue to slam the media, it seems to be working. When Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 went missing, CNN covered the story nonstop, and the more they covered it, the more their ratings went up. During the first week that the airliner went missing, special coverage hosted by Anderson Cooper during the 8 p.m. television slot beat Bill O’Reilly’s The O’Reilly Factor for ratings; something that never happens as Fox News consistently dominates over CNN and MSNBC. This benefits the major television companies, not the public. Reporters are having a hard time making a distinction between people who contract the disease because they are a healthcare worker who have been in close contact with a patient and the idea that the general public is at that same high-level risk. It is a fallacy and a dangerous one that is propagated by anchors on all three major networks, thus continuing a cycle of misinformation and fear mongering.
The implications for this type of reporting are extremely dangerous for our society. The desire for ratings and profit has fragmented the news media and has pitted each one against the other, often resulting in the distortion of many issues. When reporters directly try to target the public’s emotions in order to evoke a type of impetuous response, this influences the way in which the public responds to the issues. For example, with Ebola, the incessant reporting on CNN and the speculations of “could Ebola spread in the United States,” inserted fear into the public and resulted in people supporting a travel ban from West Africa. A travel ban from West Africa is not the correct way to handle the Ebola situation and yet some pundits, on Fox, CNN, and MSNBC alike, made the public believe that this was a necessary, or the “only” way to handle the situation. We should be open to having an honest debate about ways in which to tackle the crisis, but the media frenzy put the public into a panic, thus allowing for impulsive criticism towards the Obama administration for not enacting such a measure. As a result, the issue becomes too politicized and people lose focus on what actually matters, making it about us rather than those in need.
When there is a possibility that it will “threaten” our way of life, we have the capability to then begin criticizing and blaming those who cannot fend for themselves. Before, it was an “African” problem, now it is seen as “our” problem and though there is virtually zero chance of the virus spreading in the United States the way it has in Western Africa, we continue to parade around, making it about us and not about those who are truly affected, completely in danger of contracting the disease. As long as our response to this epidemic continues to be a self-centered one, filled with hysteria and delirium, we will not be able to focus on the facts and treat the problem at its source.v