The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recently declared the 2014 Ebola epidemic the largest outbreak of the disease in history. 24/7 news coverage of the virus’ horrors have only fanned the flames of the public’s fear. But despite how dangerous the media makes Ebola seem, America’s worries are greatly disproportionate to any actual danger posed. In its wall-to-wall coverage of the epidemic, the American media has presented few actual facts, clouding the true nature of the virus and provoking the descent into sensationalism.
As a serious illness with an average fatality rate of 50%, according to the World Health Organization, Ebola is nothing to trifle with. Yet only those who directly contact the body fluids of an Ebola patient are at risk of infection. Despite the frantic Facebook posts, our college campus has very little to worry about; people who have not travelled to West Africa or come into contact with an infected person have no chance of contracting the disease.
Still, these facts fall, by and large, on the deaf ears of the press. The Ebola epidemic is only the latest example of how pitifully prone the popular media are to yellow journalism—a term popularized in the Gilded Age for the type of poorly researched, sensationalist stories published by scandal-mongering newspapers.
This eagerness to accept everything the media says as fact is creeping into academia too. In the past week, three U.S. universities have canceled invitations to journalists traveling from countries that could have the disease, Andrew Beaujon wrote in the Poynter Institute, in what he calls a “willful disregard for facts” regarding unjustified Ebola fears. And Emerson students, as members of a community that specializes in communication and the creative arts, may be especially prone to melodrama.
Politicians have also shown that they are not above exploiting the American public’s fears. Elected officials on both sides of the aisle have been using the deplorable tactic of blaming the opposition for the epidemic. Senate Democrats are now joining Republicans in hastily calling for a travel ban to the African nations with confirmed cases of the disease, which calls into question their intentions. The Atlantic’s Russell Berman identified a compelling indicator that the idea is politically-motivated: “They are emanating much more loudly from candidates on the campaign trail than from the party leaders on Capitol Hill.”
What truly shows how exploitative the news has become is the way CNN flipped its coverage as soon as the public started to realize how little of a threat Ebola actually is. The network started with hosting debates on the question “Could Ebola go airborne?” and publishing foreboding articles like “Are U.S. hospitals ready for an Ebola outbreak?”. But just three weeks later, CNN began to condemn the public’s reaction—which it was partly responsible for with its earlier coverage—with headlines proclaiming “Ebola hysteria: An epic, epidemic overreaction.”
With such a quick and dramatic change, it’s clear that the facts of Ebola are finally making their way around, and the disservice done by politicians and news organizations is becoming equally apparent. The manufactured panic of Ebola has proven that some seemingly respectable news agencies are all too willing to distort the facts to gain viewers. But particularly with sensitive, far-reaching stories like health crises, it is incumbent upon journalists to stop perpetuating sensationalist news and shirk yellow journalism.