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Making Sense of the Media's Treatment of Ebola

Oct 5, 2014

Credit npr.org

Ebola has come to the United States.                                  

And, with the Ebola diagnosis of a man in Dallas who had traveled to this country from Africa, the frightening Ebola outbreak took on new meaning for Americans -- and the U-S media.

Cable news networks and social media like Twitter and Facebook lit up with the news that the scary disease had been diagnosed in this country.

For the news media, Ebola poses some special challenges. Just the mention of Ebola is guaranteed to get eyeballs on your news product. But, responsible reporting is essential to keep from inciting undue panic among viewers, listeners and readers.

"That first diagnosed case in the U-S led to a host of cell phone alerts and news alerts on cable and it went crazy on Facebook," said Kelly McBride of the Poynter Institute's Sense-Making Project. "That's because in this environment that we live in, the first of anything scary and big is gold for the media -- even though that first story -- every single media outlet looked exactly the same.  There was a very limited amount of news and everybody told the same story. Everybody got a huge spike in audience. It feeds the panic because we live in this hyper-vigilant media environment."

There's a lot of science involved in telling a story like Ebola. Knowing how it spreads, and how it doesn't spread, is something the media needs to get right.

"O-k, science is always hard for journalists and that's because we live in a world that doesn't necessarily embrace science and the nuances of science," McBride explained. "Journalists, for the most part, are remembering to tell people that this is not an airborne disease, that this is spread by bodily fluids, that you have to have direct contact. But, they're also -- in the same sentence -- saying and it's in the United States!  So, I'd give them a C on the science part of it."

McBride said that the most important job for the media on a story like this is to play watchdog on the medical community.

"Rather than focusing on the patient and his family, there are legitimate questions about whether health care workers are really trained," said McBride.  "And that really is the most important role that reporters can play."