Ebola and the Media's Multiple Personality Disorder

A tale of two narratives


In the human body, Ebola causes fever, diarrhea, vomiting, uncontrollable hemorrhaging, and usually death. In the media, it causes a sort of multiple personality disorder. Since the current outbreak began, the press has wavered uneasily between intimations of doom and assurances that everything is under control. While The Daily Mail suggests that terrorists could transform the virus into a weapon, The Daily Beast declares that the "Ebola Panic Is Worse Than the Disease." Fox raises the specter of illegal immigrants bringing the virus over the border, and MSNBC assures us that the authorities have things in hand. One outlet asks an author of medical thrillers to speculate about the ways the threat might mutate into something more frightening; another declares that we're watching an "epic, epidemic overreaction."

Wait, sorry: Did I say that was "another" outlet? Actually, those last two both came from CNN. With Ebola as their muse, the media have raised the mixed message to an art form.

This isn't unprecedented. We saw something similar in 1995, when Ebola broke out in Zaire. A look back at that coverage can tell us a lot about what we're witnessing now.

I'm drawing here on "Hot Crises and Media Reassurance," a 1998 study by the Canadian sociologist Sheldon Ungar. Ungar's paper notes that scholars have offered three models of moral panics: the elite-engineered panic, in which officials try to achieve some end by deliberately stoking public anxiety; the interest group–directed panic, in which "would-be agenda setters" spread the fears; and the grassroots panic, which bubbles up spontaneously from below. "In contrast with attempts to manipulate panics from above," Ungar writes,

grass root panics tend to involve obtrusive real-world events that unleash acute episodes of collective fear. To borrow a metaphor from the emergent diseases literature, grass root panics can often be understood as over-heated responses to "hot crises." Whereas journalists tend to view crises as any kind of trouble at all, hot crises entail dread-inspiring events that are developing in unpredictable ways and are seen as having the potential to pose an imminent personal threat to specific populations. Hot crises are startling, as presumed invulnerabilities appear to be challenged. A palpable sense of menace puts the issue "in the air," as unfolding events are watched, discussed and fretted over.

Reviewing previous crises, such as the Three Mile Island accident in 1979 and the eruption of AIDS in the '80s, Ungar theorizes that while the media are generally happy to sell papers by scaring people, their coverage tends to change shape if elites are worried that a grassroots panic may be emerging. At that point, he writes, there is a shift "from fear-inducing to fear-reducing coverage."

The epidemic of '95 produced two media narratives, which Ungar calls the "mutation-contagion" and "containment" packages. In the first storyline, rampaging microbes ignore national frontiers, germs always outwit us, and it's only a matter of time before the next plague hits. In the second, sub-Saharan Africa is framed as a "radically different" place whose public health problems "are the result of a distinct set of conditions that do not occur outside this locality." Mutation-contagion stories highlight the inadequacies of the West's public health systems; containment stories contrast Zaire's poor conditions ("perfect for breeding a plague") with the "exemplary protective methods used by the CDC and other Western experts." In 1995, the initial outbreak was greeted by mutation-contagion stories, but outlets shifted rapidly to the containment framework. One paper took just two days to go from calling Ebola "easily spread" to saying it is "relatively difficult to catch."

This was not simply a matter of correcting the record. Editors and reporters changed their minds about what constituted important news. When a man was quarantined at a Canadian airport for fear that he had been exposed to the virus, the story drew local attention but "received almost no coverage in the USA and Britain." Not long before, the press corps had been trumpeting the possibility that the disease could cross the sea.

I'm greatly simplifying Ungar's argument, which also explores several other influences on the media's behavior during the Zaire crisis. (The movie Outbreak, for example, in which an Ebola-like disease spreads from Zaire to the U.S., was released right before the epidemic hit the news, a piece of timing that recalls The China Syndrome's appearance just ahead of the partial meltdown at Three Mile Island. That kind of coincidence is good for box-office revenue but not for clear-headed reporting.) For our purposes, what's most interesting is how the current coverage echoes and yet differs from 1995's news cycle. Those same two narratives have returned, but this time the containment stories have had a harder time displacing the mutation-contagion tales.

Why? For one thing, this time Ebola really has surfaced outside Africa. There haven't been many cases, but there have been medical mistakes that put more people at risk. That combination of proximity and error is bound to make Americans more worried, and some of those worried Americans have access to a microphone.

Indeed, more people in general have access to a microphone. That's another reason for the difference: The Internet of 2014 has a much greater population than the Internet of 1995, and that means you're less likely to see the media move uniformly from one take on a developing story to another.

This effect is enhanced by the proliferation of partisan outlets. The more fearful coverage certainly hasn't been limited to the right-wing press—it was middle-of-the-road CNN that put the phrase "EBOLA: 'THE ISIS OF BIOLOGICAL AGENTS?'" on a chyron—but the contagion narrative has been especially popular in conservative venues. In part that's because concerns about CDC competence are easily combined with concerns about a Democratic administration's competence. But it also reflects the deep links between a fear of epidemics and a fear of the border, which is stronger these days on the right. (If you look at the wider population, as opposed to pundits and activists, the ideological split isn't as pronounced: A recent Reason-Rupe poll showed a majority of both major parties believing it at least somewhat likely that an Ebola outbreak will hit a U.S. city. Even then, though, the majority was larger among Republicans.)

If the mutation-contagion narrative grafts easily onto anxieties about outsiders, the alternative appeals to people whose apprehensions are focused closer to home. The fear of a grassroots panic has been much more overt in 2014's containment stories than in 1995's. When America's first Ebola case appeared in Dallas, Politico published a piece 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 the patient's backyard, The Dallas Morning News ran an item headlined "Why a positive Ebola test in Dallas is no cause for panic." These warnings against panic have become so common that some of the contagion narrative's advocates have actually embraced the word, apparently forgetting that panic, unlike mere fear or concern, is by definition hysterical and irrational. The conservative Washington Free Beacon published a piece called "The Case for Panic," in which Ebola shared the stage with ISIS and other forces that frighten the author.

Outside the government and media, despite some scattered examples of hysterical behavior, mass panic has steadfastly failed to emerge. Nor has an American Ebola epidemic begun. But as long as there's a chance of either, the press will find ways to be worried. Even in its fear-reducing mode, the media still manage to exude fear.

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  1. The more fearful coverage certainly hasn’t been limited to the right-wing press…

    But in the left-wing press, there’s the Sophie’s Choice of getting clicks on their news sites and getting cliques of favor elected.

    (Fine, that was awkward, but you get the point.)

  2. “The government has everything under control. We are doomed.” How is this two different messages?

    I remember Three-Mile Island, since we were in Lebanon, PA, about 30 miles as the fallout flies. For over a week, nobody was publicly in charge. Our schools closed so kids wouldn’t be exposed, only the kids then went outside to play. There was an announcement from somebody that parents who thought to confine kids to their basement would be exposing them to radon, which would be worse than whatever was outside. I clearly remember a newshead introducing a TMI janitor, who proceeded to explain what was happening inside the reactor. According to the national news my father watched in Texas, Lebanon was soon to be evacuated. About the time the governor got around to appointing someone to talk to the press, the story dissipated.

    From where I sit, Ebola is another verse of the same song.

    1. I clearly remember a newshead introducing a TMI janitor, who proceeded to explain what was happening inside the reactor.

      Now I’m probably gonna waste three hours looking for this on YouTube…

    2. For over a week, nobody was publicly in charge.

      A big part of successful living is knowing how to act without anyone else being in charge.

    3. “TMI – From where I sit, Ebola is another verse of the same song.”

      Well, the problem is that 3 mile island could have turned into a more dangerous situation – like a couple accidents since have proven.

      It’s no cause for celebration when we avoid tragedy. That’s they way regulations and standards are supposed to work.

  3. I’m kind of sick of people upset about the scary coverage.

    Yes, yes, yes, we get it – the risk is minimal.

    But I like reading about pandemics, zombies, etc. Its fun (when its not real.)

    This is why the coverage is so high – same with missing airliners.

    We only live once – let us have our rampant speculation and morbid fascinations.

  4. For one thing, this time Ebola has really has surfaced outside Africa.

    Fix it.

  5. “Even in its fear-reducing mode, the media still manage to exude fear.”

    As have the “libertarians” here when given the chance to spout their opinions. If we appointed these commenters as media moguls, we’d see the same thing or worse!

    Consistency is a good thing. The problem there is that you can’t use consistency to score political points again Obola. Or Ebama…or whoever.

    1. Shit Lava headinass.
      When the shit pressure builds up in the shit volcano.
      You get an explosion of shit lava.

    2. So your argument is that if we put in different people to be talking heads instead of the current talking heads, things would be the same? Do the pundits make public health policy now? Or is your argument that public opinion is controlled by some shadowy cabal of media tyrants, probably operating Dr. Claw-style, stroking a cat somewhere, ideally with flashing lightning and a room dimly lit by a guttering candle? Please explain what exactly “media moguls” have to do with public health policy, except to point out the blatantly obvious in cases like this where the emperor is naked?

  6. Ebola, ebola, ebola… yeah, yeah, yeah.

    However, Apple does one for the folks and closes the back door. Guess they know which side their bread is buttered on…

    Anyway, thank you Apple.


  7. Wow, what a load of navel gazing this was.

    A simple list of facts, draw your own conclusions.

    Ebola appears to be more contagious than reported and less contagious than the flu. It can survive on surfaces for hours and so can be passed on without direct contact between people. It does not appear that it passes easily via air, but can pass in droplets via coughing or sneezing under close conditions.

    Ebola can be treated with modern medicine and the survival raised above certain death. However, it still has a high (50%+) death rate and the treatment is wildly expensive for that meager success.

    Very few medical facilities seem capable of treating it successfully so the ability to treat large numbers of patients successfully does not currently exist. (We are currently flying any patients we can via medical flight to Emory Medical in Atlanta for treatment.)

    Initial symptoms of Ebola are similar to those of flu so if it begins contagion via secondary surfaces it is likely that patients with it will remain in the general population while contagious believing it to be a more mundane illness. Under these conditions Ebola could spread rapidly. This means containing it domestically requires that those having contact with patients be isolated continuously after contact to limit secondary contagion. (This is the problem with people having Ebola coming into the country undetected and immediately isolated.)

    1. We have lots of immigrants from a large number of countries (including those in Africa) who do not pass through medical screening.

      It appears to me that only a couple of undiagnosed people, infected and contagious, could release this into the general population in the US.

      1. Good analysis. It shows there is some cause for concern.

        One thing that makes it of less concern is the rapidity with which you die.

        This makes it less likely someone from W. Africa with ebola will actually board a plane. There is probably a small window when they have it, are contagious, and haven’t begun to die.

        When the MSM tells us something, all en masse, it is because it furthers an agenda, nearly always. In this case, the agenda is ‘Obama is in charge, he’s doing a good job’.

  8. There are always group fears. The group fear that is most dangerous is when it furthers an agenda for more power to government, and it also furthers an agenda for a large, but somewhat fringe group to prove its value.

    AGW is a perfect example of this. It gives government more control, and it proves to socialist type thinkers capitalism is bad, and must be contained, and hopefully destroyed. It was only about the environment from about 1983 – 1993. Then, it was a legit scientific question.

  9. “Reason” and Stossel have definitely aligned themselves with the “don’t worry about it” crowd. I’m a libertarian, but I’ll tell you right now, they’ve got this wrong. It’s not your ‘run of the mill’ Ebola outbreak that fizzles out. That has been evident in the charts for a few months now.

    This will be very costly.

    “The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function.”
    -Albert Bartlett

    1. “t’s not your ‘run of the mill’ Ebola outbreak that fizzles out. That has been evident in the charts for a few months now.”

      So, just for kicks, how many Americans will get this disease in the USA and die? Give your best guess?

      I say…about a 90% chance of it being less than 100 and a 98% chance of it being less than 1,000.

      Which puts it very low on the scale compared to just about EVERYTHING else, from tylenol to recreational boating.

      Not to say a major effort isn’t needed to avoid infection – but I think we are capable of doing it.

      Some missteps – even a couple dozen or hundred deaths or infections – will only serve to make us more vigilant, which will likely reduce future cases.

      But, let’s see what you guess and then compare notes later.

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