EBOLA – Do the media and government feed the fear?


In my 30 years of reporting the news on radio and on NBC in Los Angeles and New York, I have rarely seen as much media and government frenzy as I have seen with Ebola.

Is this frenzy feeding the fear?  Are the media reports and government news conferences doing more harm than good?

It’s a conundrum we deal with every day.

When I question whether or not to report on a “new suspected case” and I mutter that I wish we’d limit the number of stories on this subject, I hear the same answers I’ve heard for many years; and, being a journalist as well as a physician I know they are factual.

-“It’s our job to report the news and the facts, no matter how worrisome they are”

-“If we don’t report it, others outlets will and we will lose viewers”

-“You will explain it better; you will calm fears rather than ignite them. You will provide perspective”

Perspective is the key. But what’s missing from that response is the perspective of the report’s impact.

While there is no doubt in my mind each individual report I and other credible health reporters do about the “latest suspected case” helps temporarily ease some of the fear over that particular case, I also have no doubt that the number of reports done over the course of weeks and the style in which they are reported, their content, nature and the headlines used to promote them, ignite or re-ignite fear and confusion for some viewers listeners and readers.

So let’s put it in perspective.

As of this writing there have been nine cases of Ebola in the United States (that number may change by the time this is published) Of those nine cases seven contracted Ebola in Africa. The two who caught it here were nurses with prolonged direct contact with Thomas Eric Duncan in Texas. Compare those numbers to the flu where five to 20 percent of all Americans get it every year a disease and up to 40,000 Americans die. Yes Ebola is much deadlier – killing up to 50 percent of people who get it whereas the flu kills only 0.1 percent.  However my point here is that Ebola is not spreading like wildfire in America and in fact two very crucial aspects of it are likely to protect us.

1) It takes prolonged and direct contact to catch it with an infected individual

2) It doesn’t spread unless there are symptoms and the more severe the symptoms the more likely the spread.  It’s very, very difficult to spread.

So in this particular case, are the media and government feeding the frenzy and the fear? And do they do more harm than good?

Regarding the first question I believe the answer is yes. The number of reports, the number of announcements, the headlines and way they are reported do ignite, even create concern. But, as I say when speaking to my medical students – we have to face facts about the media: It is their job to report the news and drive ratings, and while facing more and more competition they will lose their jobs if they don’t compete. They are moral and do care but the glut still causes a frightening impact. Perhaps the most important fact is the media will not change. It is here to stay and perhaps get even worse. So how can we tip the balance more to the good?

One idea might be limit reports to proven cases another might be to create a separate section on the website or a separate newscast on the subject

What about the government announcements?  Here I have stronger feelings. Remember this is also their job. In some cases, officials validate jobs by holding news conferences. But as with Bird Flu, SARS and MERS; all of which I said would not be a concern here; I am sure there were too many announcements and too many news conferences. That is more about job validation than responsibility.  I would like to see that limited to real and new findings that we have facts on rather than knee-jerk quick, responses as we’ve seen in a few of the Ebola reports.

The second question, is the media doing more harm than good, is more difficult to answer. I would like to believe that reports done by credible journalists do much to calm fears and provide information, which empower viewers, listeners and readers to protect themselves. But that is on a case-by-case basis and in single reports. Knowing how Ebola does and doesn’t spread gives the ability to take simple steps to remain safe and hopefully calm nerves. But to report each time a suspected case arises before it is investigated definitely does more harm than good.

I’ve said since I first heard about Thomas Eric Duncan, the first Ebola patient diagnosed here, I am sure we will have sporadic cases. We will not have an epidemic like the plague or like you see in movies. So how provide the information without feeding the fear?

Ideal media solutions are unlikely to be instituted because, for some people, they may sound unconstitutional or too much like big brother or Orwell’s 1984. And I object to any form of censorship. One suggestion that’s been made is to create a commission that overseas all news outlets in times like these and decides how often and what to report. It would create an even playing field and might actually help slow rather than speed frenzy.  Although it might be a good idea on a general basis, it will never happen to control one subject like Ebola. 

What about similar control within each station? Well that’s already true to some extent. My excellent management team does consider the issues I’ve raised each time a report surfaces.  But that does not remove the overall problem and, when competition rears its head, it does not remove the need to react to it. I wish there were a more clear-cut solution.

So to the public I say this: The same thing I say, on my radio shows, in print, on TV, on my podcast: Find the outlets you trust most, the ones that give you the full story.  Listen to the whole body of the report. Don’t be fooled by commercials or the headlines. Get the facts and come to a conclusion about whether or not to be frightened and how to protect yourself. I assure you there is nothing for you to fear from Ebola unless you have been exposed to a patient directly and for a long period of time. And that’s a fact.

Bruce Hensel, M.D., is America’s preeminent TV and radio health journalist, has won nine Emmys and two Golden MiKES, including best overall feature reporter twice. He cuts through the muck, demystifies medicine, tells you what is real and what isn’t – what is a fact and what is a rip off – the truth about your health.

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