Has the media overreacted to Ebola?

October 21st, 2014

Paul Fraumeni

Has the media reported the ongoing developments in the Ebola outbreak objectively or has media coverage reached such a fever pitch that it has incited panic? For some perspective, we turned to veteran journalist and U of T Scarborough Journalism Program Director Jeffrey Dvorkin. He is a former Managing Editor and Chief Journalist for CBC Radio and served as Vice President, News and Information for National Public Radio in the US and as NPR’s first news ombudsman.

Dvorkin is a frequent commentator on the ethics of media. Check out his blog, Now the Details

Q. I don’t want to minimize the terrible experience of people suffering with Ebola, but it has been fascinating to watch how the media has covered the story. What’s your take?

This is a story with profound implications for those affected by the disease but the media, with some notable exceptions, has gone crazy. The problem has been that Ebola is not a disease we know very well and the description of the symptoms is horrific. All of this plays into a sense of cultural entropy that we seem to be going through where the world seems to be going to hell in a handcart and nothing seems to work anymore and there is a powerful sense of general dysfunction. The media has latched onto this for a number of reasons and it is disturbing that the media seems to have, in general, lost its ability to provide context and perspective.

Q. The coverage of the growing crisis in Africa was one thing, but I thought the media overreaction really went over the top when that man in Texas died from Ebola.

I think it speaks to a post-9/11 anxiety where the slightest deviation from the norm now has the potential to throw us back to that terrible time after 9/11 where we didn’t know what was going on, we couldn’t make sense of it, and we didn’t know very clearly why it was happening. That sense of a lack of control in politics, in government, in media is easily ignited in times like this.

Q. This has certainly been seen in television coverage, but it’s really been all the media platforms – radio, newspapers, and online – that seem to try to outdo each other about who can get more microscopic and sensationalistic about it.

Yes, you’re right. As you say, you don’t want to minimize the seriousness of the outbreak, but the way the media has handled this says more about the media’s anxiety about the state of its industry than it does about the seriousness of the Ebola outbreak outside of Africa.

My sense is that at a time when media organizations are very anxious about how they are going to survive, about what the consequences of digital media are on legacy media – radio, television and print – there is a desire to milk this for all it’s worth. As CNN found out when they did the disappearance of the Malaysian Airlines story, every time they touched that story and attempted to not explain but simply to reference it, the ratings skyrocketed. Brian Stelter, on CNN’s Reliable Sources, tweeted yesterday that whenever they do the Ebola story, the audience jumps by about 50 per cent.

And they’re not the only ones. In Canadian media, the CBC seems to be doing the same thing as well, especially on television.

They are all so anxious about missing an opportunity to nail down an audience by frightening people into submission and into loyalty to their brand that it’s created a deformed kind of media hysteria.

Q. You also find this at the complete other end of the news spectrum with novelty stories, such as with Prince George. Every time he makes a public appearance, the media blankets it with coverage.

We’re at a time when media organizations are really getting thinner and they’re looking for as much low-hanging fruit as is possible to harvest. And in a non-emergency environment that mostly means “crime, weather and traffic.” But when you have a story like Ebola, which is, like the Malaysian Airlines story, kind of mysterious, it plays into the paranoid tendencies that some media organizations in the US and Canada tend to touch on. I think media organizations are really worried that their way of trying to stabilize themselves financially is now increasingly slipping away from them. So they’re looking for whatever opportunities they can create to see if they can pull that audience together.

Q. As I recall, news reporting was less sensationalistic say 25 years ago, as compared to today.

That’s because the possibilities for digital media are so great now. Legacy media organizations are not just competing among themselves, they’re competing with Buzzfeed and Huffington Post and every person who has a website. And that’s making it much more difficult for media organizations to say, “OK, we’re going to take a step back, we’re going to figure this out, we’re going to provide context and valued information to our audience because that’s the way we can serve them best.”

That’s increasingly disappearing. I have to say that I was just watching the BBC World Service and they were doing a good job in saying, “Here’s the problem, here’s the disease, but here’s how it’s getting better.” With that approach, they were able to say that in Ghana and Nigeria Ebola has been brought under control, that Africans are not the hopeless and hapless people that the media has framed them to be and that this is a story that can be explained in a certain way. The BBC did an excellent job in saying, “Let’s roll this back a bit.”

So I’m hopeful that this story will calm down over the next week or two, although you now hear the media saying, “And there are predictions that there will be 10,000 new cases by December.” Which is just insane — there’s no way you can predict that.

Q. I’ve even noticed on the specialty weather stations that there isn’t just a storm coming, it’s presented as the storm of the century.

Exactly. Again, that’s part of this financial anxiety where they are saying “What do we need to do as a media organization to stabilize an insecure monetary situation?” And it’s frightening people and creating this moral panic that doesn’t work. Some studies have shown that after a while of this intense coverage, people stop tuning in.

Q. There are some good lessons in this ongoing story for your journalism students at U of T Scarborough.

A. Absolutely. We have been studying and discussing the Ebola coverage in class as the story has developed. We talk with our students a lot about how the role of the media has changed and how it’s the obligation of these young students of ours to get jobs in media organizations and then go in there and say, “Stop this. You’re doing it all wrong.”

Ebola Virus Virion

Ebola Virus Virion. Photo: Wikipedia.