by Kayhan Parsi, JD, PhD
Although the Ebola virus is not ubiquitous, media coverage of it certainly is. A quick Google search of Ebola results in 37,700,000 hits. By comparison, Googling Obama results in 34,200,000 hits (although googling Obama and Ebola together results in 91,800,000 hits). Media coverage of Ebola has displaced many other news stories over the last few weeks. WNYC’s On the Media has tried to temper the over-the-top media coverage. They even posted a Breaking News Consumer’s Handbook. Yet, the media juggernaut continues. Why does the US media obsess over public health matters that pose modest risk here, yet ignore much greater risks?
Of course, the media frenzy over Ebola is nothing new. Remember H1N1? How about SARS? Anthrax, anyone? We engage in this almost ritualistic media dance every few years when a potentially harmful, even lethal, contagion is constantly reported by the media. A few tragic deaths occur, the CDC tries to allay individuals’ fears, and then everyone goes back to their state of normalcy. Yet, we don’t seem to learn from this semi-regular rite of passage with the media.
I recently dusted off my 2006 copy of False Alarm by Marc Siegel. A physician and commentator, Siegel noted the strange paradox that individuals in the industrialized world live longer than ever, yet live under a constant state of anxiety, fear, and worry. He states that “illness is no longer accepted as part of the natural order of things, and as consumers, we have become terrified of all disease, even though most of the time, doctors can diagnose an illness and offer either a cure or an effective treatment. Still, we continue to worry.” He went on to say that the media can “elevat[e] an issue to a grand scale and provoke[e] panic way out of proportion to the risks. I call this phenomenon the ‘bug du jour.’”
As Siegel explains, part of this is how our brains are hard wired to react to potentially dangerous threats. Ebola is certainly a deadly disease and has killed thousands of Africans. Our experience here has been much milder. Despite advances in science, medicine and public health, our responses to the steady drumbeat of hyperbole in the media can seem overblown. Take, for example, the recent case of three states imposing mandatory quarantine of individuals returning from West Africa. In light of the recent quarantine case of Kaci Hickox, Governor Christie stated plainly that government’s duty is to protect the health and safety of its citizenry. This is true, and our federal system that puts the onus on states to implement quarantine rules may seem excessive, even in light of CDC recommendations. Yet, both Christie and Cuomo changed their positions, in light of sharp criticism.
Satirists such as Jon Stewart and John Oliver have highlighted the folly of our bizarre response to Ebola. Others have expressed anger about the lopsided media coverage of Ebola in the US compared to West Africa, where the vast majority of victims of Ebola have died. Journalist Laurie Garrett wrote a piece several years ago about the media’s response to epidemics. She observed that public health held a much greater level of respect and trust than it does today. This lack of trust isn’t limited to public health, of course. Trust in physician leaders has declined precipitously over the last several decades, as this recent NEJM article attests. In writing this piece in 2001, Garrett stated:
“WHO now has a field media officer on site in Uganda during the current Ebola virus epidemic. There have been no problems to date associated with inaccurate reporting or conflicts between media workers and public health officials in that area.” She finishes with the following claim:
“Finally, public health is a trust. That’s all it is: a trust between government and the public it serves. The media can be that bridge, keeping that trust intact, or
it may not be.”
If this were only the case today.