By Tim Webber
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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.
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.