Public relations, public health communications, media relations

Major Outbreak: 24/7 Media Coverage about Ebola Hits ‘Hysterical’ Tone

Posted on October 20, 2014

Major Outbreak: 24/7 Media Coverage about Ebola Hits ‘Hysterical’ Tone

By Paul Fulton, Jr., Vice President

All Ebola. All the time.

An outbreak of 24/7 media coverage about Ebola has erupted since the first case arrived in America. And it’s not just trumpeting from the national news – it seems every community TV station and newspaper has found a local tie-in to keep the story going. It’s particularly telling when High Times” jumps into the Ebola fray.

With the highly competitive nature of today’s media, every minor update in the Ebola story arc is reported as major, breaking news. And when there’s no update, the topic is evaluated from every sensational angle.

While this may be good for ratings, it’s potentially bad for media audiences – because they’re likely to start tuning out the daily cries of “Wolf!” streaming through TVs, radios and social media channels.

Although their coverage of the disease is still in an early incubation period, media are working overtime to keep people informed of this major global story. The potential for unintended tune-out, however, should be of grave concern to public health officials.

If a crucial situation arises, a deaf public won’t hear or act when important, timely information truly needs to break through the clutter. Most experts say the current style of coverage and hyperbole is simply stoking fears. Here’s a round-up of key analyses, responses and actions:

Earlier media coverage could have mobilized faster response and containment

Doctors Without Borders issued a June 3 press release with the headline, “Resurgence of Epidemic Ebola in West Africa.” On June 4, the World Health Organization reported Ebola had claimed 223 victims in three countries – the deadliest outbreak ever. American media largely ignored it. Some advocates and officials, however, believe earlier media coverage could have mobilized a stronger, faster U.S. response and helped to contain the virus.

Those who consume the most news about Ebola understand it the least

In studying concerns about and knowledge of Ebola among New Jersey residents, a recent Rutgers-Eagleton poll found those who are paying the most attention to news coverage are most likely to have the highest misperceptions about the virus – and are less aware that it is difficult to transmit from one person to the other. Why? Rutgers-Eagleton cites the “hysterical tone of … wall-to-wall media coverage.”

CDC Director says media coverage may exaggerate risks, confuse Americans

CDC Director Tom Friedman was asked during his testimony before Congress last week whether media coverage has been helpful or harmful in his agency’s efforts to combat Ebola. According to Mediaiate, he acknowledged media would have interest in the story, but he doesn’t care for the way it’s been covered, saying: “(Ebola) is new to the United States. It’s a scary disease. It had a movie made about it. And it’s important to have that attention.” But, he continued, “Some of the coverage, I think many would agree, may exaggerate the potential risks or may confuse people about the risks. There really is a lot we know about Ebola.”

FOX News host blasts media for ‘hysterical,’ ‘irresponsible’ coverage

A video of FOX News’ Shepard Smith went viral after he lambasted the way the media have covered the Ebola story. He opened with reporting the facts about Ebola – which took only a few minutes. Then he took his peers to task, stating, in part: “The people who say and write hysterical things are being very irresponsible.”

Jobs in Jeopardy

A Maine teacher has been placed on 21 days of paid leave – because she visited Dallas and stayed in a hotel 10 miles away from where an Ebola patient was being treated. In another instance, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer for the Washington Post who took pictures of Ebola victims in Liberia last month was uninvited to a Syracuse University workshop – even though he showed no signs of the disease 21 days after returning to the United States. And the University of Georgia canceled (for now) its invitation for a Liberian journalist to deliver a prestigious McGill lecture at the campus – due to fears she could expose the university to the disease she covered.

The good news is the tide may be turning. In response to alarmist and inaccurate media coverage, #FactsNotFear has begun trending on Twitter. Using the hashtag, journalists, health care providers and nonprofit organizations are engaging in conversations that clear up misconceptions about Ebola – by contrasting, for example, its low level of contagiousness with the high levels of contagiousness that accompany the flu and Enterovirus D68. And this afternoon, CNN began covering the “epic, epidemic reaction” around Ebola.

It’s a good start. Until an authoritative voice emerges as a leader in combating Ebola in America, however, all of those fighting the information war in this public health and public relations initiative will remain in react mode with the media – and the hysterics will continue.

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