Don't Panic About Ebola—and Don't Panic About People Panicking Either

Public hysteria isn't the problem.


Galactic advice.

When the news broke yesterday that a man in Dallas had been diagnosed with Ebola, my colleague Ron Bailey delivered the news with some sensible advice: "Don't Panic!" He had plenty of company. Politico published a story headlined "Ebola's here: Don't panic." The Los Angeles Times explained "why you don't need to panic," and Business Insider told us "Why You Shouldn't Panic." Salon, uncharacteristically cautious, said "there's (probably) no reason to panic." And in Ebola's new home, The Dallas Morning News ran an item headlined "Why a positive Ebola test in Dallas is no cause for panic." I could go on, but you get the picture: The press is filled with people who don't want you to panic.

For the record, I don't want you to panic either. Even if I thought Ebola was going to spark a public health crisis in America, I wouldn't tell you to panic. Panic is always a bad idea, pretty much by definition. You shouldn't do it.

The most patronizing logo on television.

But while it's fine for the media to tell us not to panic about Ebola, let's bear in mind that the people most likely to panic about Ebola are the media. Everyday citizens tend to keep their heads in situations like this. As I wrote half a decade ago, when the purported panic on the horizon involved swine flu, "It's easy to find examples of public anxiety, with every hypochondriac in the country fretting that the cold his kid always catches this time of year was actually the killer flu. But panic? Where's the evidence of that?" Going through a series of stories that were supposed to show flu hysteria, I was underwhelmed. A Time feature, for example, had a headline that said a "swine flu panic" had hit Mexico, but the actual article didn't demonstrate that:

It tells us that many Mexicans donned facemasks, as recommended by their government; that stores quickly sold out of masks and vitamin supplements; that schools in Mexico City shut down; that some people left the city and others stayed put. In other words, it tells us that ordinary Mexicans were taking ordinary precautions. The Bild report merely informs us that a few schools in New York had closed and that many children displaying flu-like symptoms were sent home. The Guardian timeline includes a series of links to Mexican photographs that allegedly "capture the sense of panic everywhere." Click through, and you'll see pictures of people calmly going about their business while wearing masks. My favorite photo features a woman on a subway reading a newspaper, a vaguely bored look in her eyes. If this is panic, we need a new word for chaotic stampedes.

Still the go-to photo for anything involving the swine flu outbreak of '09.

Even the CNN story, which at least involves exaggerated worries and a potentially destructive diversion of resources, stops well short of describing a public panic. We learn that the number of patients at the emergency department at Chicago Children's Memorial Hospital more than doubled after the flu hit the news; we learn that some hospitals in California set up triage tents to separate the sick from the merely anxious. We learn nothing about people storming ERs, fighting each other for dwindling medical supplies, or acting in anything other than an orderly way.

"People are sharing information, they're seeking out information, they're asking questions about whether or not they have the symptoms," says Jeannette Sutton, a researcher at the Natural Hazards Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder. "Those are not incidents of panic or hysteria. That's rational thinking, where people are asking questions and trying to make decisions based on the information they have available to them."

When I distinguish anxiety from panic, I'm not just splitting hairs. The fear of panic—actual panic—has shaped public policy in unfortunate ways. During a disaster, it's not uncommon for officials to hold useful information close to their vests because they don't want to "spread panic," even though nine decades of research have established that the public almost always remains calm in such a crisis….Now imagine if those officials instead argued that they should hold back important information because they don't want to "spread anxiety." Their position would sound absurd. Nothing fans anxieties like a dearth of solid information, and nothing resolves anxiety like concrete data.

Yes, "panic" is a flexible word. I myself use it rather broadly when the subject is a so-called moral panic, trusting readers to understand that the phrase is a metaphor. But let's be clear about what social threats (as opposed to medical threats) should worry us. In Dallas right now, the chances that people will start stampeding in the streets is far, far smaller than the chances that scare-mongering coverage will make it harder to get good information.

In that spirit, I appreciate all those don't-panic pieces. I just hope they're being read in the rest of the newsroom.