Ebola in the Media

-by Faith Danglo and Sea-Jay Van der Ploeg- Has the media been covering the Ebola outbreak responsibly? Or has the news been a source of unnecessary hysteria and panic? The Panel has set out to investigate how reliable the news coverage of Ebola has been over the past few months and whether the media has exaggerated the effects Ebola could have on the U.S.

Although the news has emphasized that Ebola is a dangerous and life-threatening disease, it has propagated several fallacies about the virus. The Ebola virus, which causes hemorrhagic fever or bleeding, spreads through direct contact with bodily fluids such as breast milk, vomit, and saliva. Yet, major news outlets have encouraged speculation that Ebola could eventually become airborne. News sources, such as Fox and CNN, have yielded headlines such as “Ebola Airborne: A Nightmare That Could Happen” or “From Pigs to Monkeys, Ebola Goes Airborne” and have examined the possibility of transmission through sneezing, domestic animals, and even pools. There is no evidence that suggests Ebola will become transmittable through the air anytime soon. Anthony Fuaci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases stated, “Everything we know about this virus is that it is transmitted by  direct contact with bodily fluids.” According to Fauci, even if the virus were to mutate, “very, very rarely does it completely change the way it’s transmitted.”

Today’s Ebola coverage also has skewed public perspective regarding the likelihood of an imminent outbreak within America. Even within the Winsor community, the concern about an Ebola threat has influenced the daily lives of several students. For instance, Maddy Batt ’15 explained, “I had to change my route to school for a while because my parents were worried merely walking through the hospital where my mother works would expose me to Ebola.” Although many have entertained thriller scenarios reminiscent of the film, “Contagion,” a major Ebola outbreak in the U.S. is highly improbable. The most threatened countries, such as Liberia and Sierra Leone, had a weak health care system prior to the outbreak, a condition that exacerbated the onset of the virus. According to the WHO, while the average fatality rate of an Ebola case is 50 percent, the average fatality rate of an Ebola case in African countries such as Uganda, Sudan, and Zaire is upwards 80%. Meanwhile, compared to the around 13,000 reported cases in West Africa, the U.S. has had only four reported cases of Ebola. Three out of the four infected patients who contracted the virus due to direct medical interaction with Ebola patients were contained in well monitored isolation to ensure their recovery.

By contrasting the U.S’s resources with those of more underdeveloped nations, we soon realize how prepared we are for a possible Ebola outbreak. Accordingly, the media should emphasize Ebola’s more severe threat to the West African population instead of creating unnecessary worry and panic in the U.S. In the words of David Redlawsk, director of a recent New Jersey citizen poll, “The tone of the coverage seems to be increasing fear while not improving understanding.” We urge the Winsor community to look beyond easy emotional impulses and instead, to educate ourselves, to evaluate critically the source of our information, and to search for what the media ultimately should be serving us–an understanding of the cold, hard facts. Only then can we proceed to spread awareness and provide support with confidence and certainty.