The media can keep Ebola panic under control

By Tim Webber
Embed from Getty Images

On Tuesday, the CDC confirmed reports that a man in Texas had been diagnosed with the Ebola virus. The deadly virus has already killed thousands of people in Africa, but this is the first case to occur in the United States.

While the worst possible outcomes are frightening, the discovery of Ebola in America should not yet be cause for alarm. The virus is difficult to contract, as it is only transmitted through bodily fluids. Rationally, there is nothing to fear.

Unfortunately, we are not a country of rational people.

Commenters on this CNBC article were eager to jump to conclusions about the Ebola outbreak

Commenters on this CNBC article were eager to jump to conclusions about the Ebola outbreak

CNBC was one of the first to get the story out, and those comments were taken from CNBC’s story on the Texas Ebola case, just minutes after it was published. Comments like these were not uncommon. Granted, comment threads are infamous for showcasing the worst of mankind, but at the very least, this thread shows how easy it is to get people worked up. Mob psychology can kick in, causing an avalanche that could eventually cause crippling panic.

The media plays a huge role In how people perceive the news. If journalists aren’t careful, they can cause a massive, uninformed panic. When people don’t have all the information, but feel like they are in danger, they do dangerous things. Consider Orson Welles’ The War of the Worlds broadcast– people entered a frenzied panic, partially because they didn’t have all the information, and partially because they jumped to conclusions.

Ebola’s arrival in America could have caused a similar panic. So far, it hasn’t.

Good on NPR for publishing a story literally telling people not to panic. Good on Vox for creating an infographic that effectively tells people they don’t have Ebola (and for publishing a veritable ton of information on the subject). Good on the dozens of media organizations that quickly tweeted links to their stories published months ago on why you shouldn’t worry about Ebola.

It’s important to keep a close eye on Ebola. It’s not as if we can completely ignore it; we should be concerned. But panic is going to do more harm than good, so it’s important that the media continues to carefully report the facts and does what it can to minimize harm and reduce panic.

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8 responses to “The media can keep Ebola panic under control

  1. I’m really glad you wrote about this, and I think it’s important to continuously remind people that while we shouldn’t completely ignore the existence of this disease in the United States, it’s nothing to freak out about. The media has really done a great job of controlling people’s reactions to this coming to the U.S., and without this appropriate response, we’d probably be seeing widespread panic.

  2. This is a great article. The Ebola outbreak is a little worrisome when you aren’t as educated about what is going on. However, there have been some great articles out there trying to let people know that we shouldn’t be as worried about a major outbreak in the U.S. at this point. People are so easily swayed by news sources, so I think journalists are responsible for keeping the public informed. The way journalists word things can do their part in frightening the public, so I try to pay attention to these news stories to see how they get their message across.

  3. I completely agree! I feel like the panic started back when we brought back our infected citizens home from Africa. So many people said to leave them there or were complaining that we were all going to get infected. Some people take things way too far and don’t read all the facts before freaking out.

    Tim in his post talked about the info graphics being shared around the internet concerning the actual facts of the virus. My favorite is the Vox image that asks “Quiz: Do you have Ebola? 1. Have you touched the vomit, blood, sweat, saliva, urine, or feces of someone who might have Ebola? NO, then you don’t have Ebola.” I laughed so hard when I saw this and then thought yes exactly! I really appreciate what these companies are doing to try and curb the panic.

  4. I’m glad this topic was written about because I’ve actually been fairly impressed with the media’s response. While some news sources will always be prone to sensationalism, most have been quick to assure people that they aren’t in any danger. Ebola is obviously something that needs to be paid attention to, but it doesn’t do any good working people up when as of now there’s no reason for it.

  5. I’m glad you wrote about this topic–it’s such a prevalent story in the news today. As a journalism-health sciences student, I completely agree with your post. I’m interested in pursuing a career in communications for public health, and I think the whole media-and-ebola conversation boils down to the fact that it is the media’s responsibility to inform the public. Part of this duty involves reporting that the ebola virus is not an imminent threat for the vast majority of Americans. Overall, I think the media has done an excellent job in providing this necessary information.

  6. I’m not entirely sure if they’re doing the best job keeping it under control; people are still panicking regardless of the information. I know some people are panicking about there being a quarantine in Dallas, but at the same time, I saw an article discussing the effectiveness of quarantining.

  7. I think that as with every breaking news topic, there are both rational and irrational people reacting to the news of Ebola in America. But I also think that for something that has gotten as much coverage and attention as the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, it’s been impressive how informed the American public has been, and how positive the message from the media has been since Ebola was found in America. There will always be individuals who react poorly to drastic news like this, but for the most part, I think the media have done a great job of keeping everyone informed on all aspects of the virus.

  8. I think there’s always going to be people who draw things out of proportion, but most have kept a pretty good handle on Ebola thus far. However, I’m interested to know how many nonsensical tweets and facebook posts have been released in fear of Ebola. Just the other day I read a post on Yik Yak about Squirrels carrying the virus. People like to make a commotion and luckily this isn’t happening in media outlets, it probably is still a very active conversation on social media.

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