“Ebola is here!” has been the main theme of cable news coverage over the past week. Although technically true, the statement should accurately be followed by: “and you are very unlikely to get it.” Instead, cable news is going with something more akin to “run for your lives!”
When it comes to Ebola, there are several things that the media needs to highlight. Firstly, Ebola can only be transmitted through direct contact with bodily fluids. Second, it is a relatively fragile virus, meaning that the chances of catching Ebola by coming into contact with surfaces exposed to bodily fluids of an infected person are very low. Third, modern healthcare and basic sanitation infrastructure mean that the chance of an Ebola outbreak occurring in the U.S. is virtually zero.
Nonetheless, menacing graphics and alarmist language have become the preferred tools of news anchors covering the epidemic. For the most part, cable TV is choosing to focus on future scenarios that are theoretically possible but statistically unlikely, like the possibility of Ebola evolving into an airborne strain. Doctors are probably tired of going on air to explain how unlikely these scenarios are, and that focusing on them distorts the actual minuscule risk they pose.
One of the problems with Ebola coverage is the potential for false equivalency: the insistence of cable news to portray two sides of an argument, even if one side has science and facts on its side. Appearing on Fox and Friends on Monday, for example, Donald Trump was asked to respond to comments about the contagiousness of Ebola made by a doctor from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), as if his opinion on virology is just as valid as that of someone who has spent decades studying viruses.
Trump implied that Ebola is actually more contagious than the CDC is letting on: “This gentleman from the CDC says that it’s impossible to catch, yet an NBC reporter goes there and gets Ebola. I can’t imagine he was touching lots of folks… That’s going to be an interesting one. How did this gentleman catch Ebola?” Trump asked. No one in the studio told Trump that there is only one possible answer to his question: direct contact with the bodily fluids of an infected person, because that is the only way to catch Ebola as a matter of medical fact.
Perhaps the most absurd question on Ebola was asked by Christ Wallace on Fox News Sunday: “What are the chances that illegal immigrants will come over our porous southern border with Ebola, or that terrorists will purposely send someone here using Ebola as a bio terror weapon?”
The man he was interviewing, Dr. Anthony Fauci of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, responded calmly that the U.S.’ southern border does not align with West Africa, so the chances are — again — zero to none. “If I were a bio-terrorist, [Ebola] would not be my choice,” Fauci added.
Although Fox News is leading the charge on Ebola alarmism, it is by no means alone. CNN was also quick to make the connection between Ebola and terrorism: “All ISIS would need to do is send a few of its suicide killers to Ebola affected zones and then get them on some mass transit, somewhere where they would need to be to affect the most damage,” CNN’s Ashleigh Banfield recently speculated.
Again, the theory was shut down by the one person in the studio with a medical degree, who calmly explained that Ebola is not spread like SARS, MERS, or influenza, and that by the time someone is contagious they are too sick to be taking mass transit around town. This did not stop CNN from keeping the headline “Ebola: The ISIS of Biological Agents?” onscreen during the whole segment.
The virus is also serving as an excuse for xenophobia, with racist undertones to boot. The idea of blocking flights out of Ebola-stricken countries is constantly raised, despite the fact that most health experts believe this would actually make matters worse. Fox News’s Andrea Tantaros went so far as to suggest that any Ebola infected people coming into the U.S. will neglect medical care: “In these countries, they do not believe in traditional medical care. So someone could get off a flight and seek treatment from a witch doctor who practices Santeria. This is a bigger fear. We’re hoping that they come to the hospitals in the U.S. They might not!”
Public anxiety about Ebola is perfectly legitimate; after all, the current outbreak is the deadliest in history and has already claimed 2,000 lives. The situation is Africa is spiraling out of control. Many say the window of opportunity to keep a lid on the outbreak is closing fast. It is the responsibility of the media to report on crises such as this. But it’s also the media’s responsibility to balance the urgency of the situation in West Africa with the fact that the risks to Americans at home are minimal.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has not yet released a handbook for journalists reporting on Ebola. But it would probably include this paragraph from the WHO’s handbook for journalists covering the pandemic influenza of 2005: “Individual communities are, legitimately, concerned to know whether they are at risk, and if so what the nature of the risk is, and what they can do about it. In such situations, undue alarm caused by faulty information can do much damage. The key responsibility of journalists is — or at least should be — to ensure that the information it disseminates is as accurate as it can be in the circumstances.”