Media spread Ebola hysteria

By Editorial Board

Dominating headlines and spurring 24-hour coverage on news channels, the Ebola virus is infecting the minds of Americans despite assurances from White House officials that the illness will not spread to the U.S.

As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention continue their efforts to mitigate a potential U.S. outbreak, media outlets are reporting developments with undue urgency even though the first Ebola death on U.S. soil has already been reported. While it is the media’s job to deliver news, some outlets are sensationalizing coverage and neglecting to properly educate people about the virus, igniting hysteria among Americans.

This was most recently seen when a gruesome photoshopped image from the zombie–apocalypse film “World War Z” movie went viral Sept. 30 after the tabloid Big American News claimed the photo was of a deceased Liberian man who contracted Ebola and rose from the dead. Despite clearly being sensationalized, the story received millions of hits, prompting credible news sources to write pieces confirming that the image was a hoax. Bloomberg Businessweek exacerbated the problem when it dedicated its Sept. 25 issue to Ebola, titling it “Ebola is Coming” in a bloody typeface. To combat the fear, The Washington Post published an article Oct. 5 explaining that Ebola can only be contracted through the exchange of bodily fluids.

Journalists must ensure that they are properly educating the public when delivering information to avoid causing unnecessary fear.

On Oct. 6, Fox News host Elisabeth Hasselbeck interviewed Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Disease at the National Institutes of Health, asking leading questions such as “Why are we still letting people into the country that could have possibly been exposed?” One man was diagnosed with the virus in America; thousands of people have died of Ebola in West Africa because they lack treatment options or resources. The U.S. is now trying to send aid to those countries. Instead of focusing on the disease and its deadly implications for those in African countries, Hasselbeck chose to focus on how it could impact Americans, igniting fear among viewers of potential risks.

The anxiety Ebola is creating is reminiscent of the hysteria created by the media during the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s. Little was known about the illness at the time except the high mortality rates among the infected and the lack of a viable treatment. This led to discriminatory measures, most notably seen in 1984 when a 13-year-old Indiana boy diagnosed with the disease, which he acquired through a blood transfusion, was kicked out of school.

Similarly, the Liberian government called for the prosecution of the man that brought the virus to the U.S. causing the quarantining of 10 Americans who unknowingly came in contact with him. Before boarding a plane to the states, Thomas Eric Duncan came in contact with an infected person, possibly spreading it to an unknown number of Americans. Since then, fear of Americans contracting the disease has increased, with a furry of news articles updating Duncan’s condition until his death Oct. 8.

Based on the gruesome images of victims with Ebola in Africa, it is the duty of the media to report this horror. However, the media must also balance their reporting with better education to ensure people are not overly fearful, particularly when there has only been one case of Ebola in the U.S. so far.