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.