American media coverage of the Ebola crisis is alarmist, one-sided

By Thomas Helgerman / Columnist

Since the Ebola outbreak began a couple of months ago, the mainstream media has made some facts about the virus abundantly clear.

First, the virus poses a serious threat to several countries in West Africa, particularly Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. Second, a more concerted international effort is needed to counter the spread of the disease both within and from afflicted countries. Third, it has become clear that major U.S. news outlets could not have done a worse job of covering the outbreak.

Coverage thus far has been excessively alarmist, perhaps best encapsulated when CNN called the virus “The ISIS of Biological Agents.” In the words of Dr. David Sanders, an Ebola virologist interviewed on Fox News’ Hannity, “the fear is spreading faster than the virus will ever spread itself.”

Additionally, news critics have excessively critiqued the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the face of the outbreak. While its response to the outbreak has not been perfect, the CDC has not seen the death of an American infected on U.S. soil as of the publication of this article.

Further, reporting has been entirely Western-centric, focusing on the threat Ebola poses to the US, as opposed to its ongoing toll in West Africa. While infected individuals in the U.S. are victims of the virus, Western media portrays those afflicted in West Africa as mere conduits for spreading the disease to the West and just a number on top of a climbing death toll. 

The media’s orientalist coverage has manifested itself in the proliferation of the phrase “I am not a virus,” throughout social media outlets in West Africa. There has even been a distinct difference between how the media reports on different patients in the U.S. — particularly between the coverage of Thomas Duncan and the two nurses who treated him. In an Oct. 16 article in The Guardian, the U.K. based newspaper claimed that Duncan was dehumanized by U.S. media, while the nurses were considered brave.

It is quite unclear why Ebola has received so much national attention. As others have pointed out, Ebola is not a very deadly disease, mostly because of how difficult it is to transmit.

According to Baylor College of Medicine, “the leading killer due to a single infectious agent is HIV/AIDS, followed by tuberculosis and malaria.” These diseases affect more people in both West Africa and the U.S., yet the media pays little attention.

In fact, the CDC estimates that the seasonal flu takes at least 3,000 American lives every year, yet the oncoming winter usually doesn’t spark a media storm.

Regardless of why the nation seems so focused on preventing Ebola from spreading onto our soil, the fervent media attention will undoubtedly have substantial consequences. Unfortunately, these consequences have been largely political and will continue to be that way.

Social scientists have conducted numerous studies to determine the impact of the news media on national attitudes. Overwhelmingly, they have found that while the media is almost entirely ineffective at telling people what to think, it is able to tell people what to think about.

For example, even though CNN can’t change anyone’s mind as to what constitutes successful economic policy, the news outlet can convince the nation that the issue is an important voting issue by covering each candidate’s view on the topic during the run-up to an election. This phenomenon has been called “agenda setting.”

This has undeniably been the case for the Ebola outbreak. Further, such a focus has made the disease a wildly political issue. Many Republican politicians are publicly in support of a travel ban on flights from certain West African countries, an idea President Obama has rightly dismissed as silly.

Consequently, how each political party responded to the outbreak will certainly be a point of contention during the upcoming 2016 election. While the President will not be able to run again, senators, representatives and governors will criticize each other for their stance on travel bans and the adequacy of the U.S. reaction to Ebola.

Fortunately, the increased attention has forced the Obama administration to take action. Even though Ebola has plagued West Africa for the past couple decades, only now that certain news outlets have turned it into a domestic political issue, has vaccines been seriously pursued by the American government.

And while the media attention may spur the U.S. to provide more assistance to Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, it is shameful that we can only be convinced to counter an international public health emergency once it becomes a domestic issue.

Few events leave more of a mark on the national memory of a presidency than how the Commander in Chief handled national disasters in office — the legacy of the Bush administration is comprised largely of his response to Hurricane Katrina.

The Obama administration will undoubtedly be remembered for how it responded to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. But, let’s hope we will also be able to recall how it took charge against victims of infectious diseases who hadn’t had the attention of the U.S. national conscious. 

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