Tonight’s Top Story: Ebola and the News Media

When the first few cases of Ebola came to the US in 2014, it seemed as though it was impossible to watch or read the news and not hear about the disease.  At first, news coverage of Ebola rose in response to the return of media personnel diagnosed overseas.  Then news coverage increased greatly after the diagnosis of the first case on American soil in late September, 2014.

Most of us can agree that the intense public and media reaction to the limited number of cases in the US was unwarranted when considering the actual risks involved in the situation.   In fact, many actions were put forth, out of an abundance of caution, which were unnecessary and counter-productive, such as border closures and excessive quarantines. But what was the source of this reaction? Was the news media responsible for stoking people’s fears? What messages were people receiving about the risks of and policy responses to the occurrence of Ebola in the United States? 

To investigate this, colleagues and I set out on a news media content analysis, reading over 1,200 news articles from 12 news sources spanning the time frame from the beginning of July through the end of November 2014. Each time we read an article, we searched for a set of messages relating to risk and policy using a coding instrument that had been piloted on a separate set of articles. We used Paul Slovic’s risk perception framework to determine if some messages would likely have increased perception of risk or decreased perception of risk. Our methods and findings can be found here and here.

We found that nearly every article in our sample (96%) had at least one risk-elevating message while approximately half (55%) had at least one risk-minimizing message. However, although skewed towards risk elevating messages, news coverage from the main stream news sources we analyzed did not seem to report on Ebola in a hyperbolic or overly irresponsible manner – for instance, we found relatively few mentions of use of Ebola as a bioterror weapon or the suggestion that, once introduced, the disease could not be stopped in the US.  In fact, messages about the ability to interrupt transmission in the US were more frequent, when directly compared to messages about an inability to interrupt transmission. It may have been that the news media played a smaller role in hyping the Ebola outbreak than expected, and the nature of the disease itself played a stronger role than was originally recognized in increasing public concerns.

Perhaps most importantly from a risk communication perspective, it was clear that public health policy messages were frequently eclipsed by more controversial messages.  The most frequent policy messages we found were focused on isolation (47%) and quarantine (40%), which were often confused with each other (isolation is the separation of someone who is ill from those who are not sick while quarantine is the separation of someone who may have been exposed to a disease from those who have not been exposed). In contrast, one of the more central public health response policies – assigning different levels of risk and associated movement restrictions for potentially exposed individuals – was rarely found (5%). This difference could be due to the newsworthiness of controversial issues – quarantine was controversial while a measured public health approach was not.  As a result, Americans may have gained a skewed or incomplete understanding of the response activities that public health agencies were putting into place in the midst of the crisis.

At the end of the day, the news media played an important role in delivering messages about Ebola to the public and will no doubt perform a similar role in future outbreaks.  Although our study methodology prevents us from drawing conclusions about the public’s understanding of the risks posed by Ebola and associated response activities, it allows us to gain a more granular understand about the messages the public may have been exposed to via the news media. Although the news media frequently mentioned risk-increasing messages, some of the most inflammatory messages were not found as frequently as expected (though they may have been present in more “fringe” news sources that were not included in our analysis). However, we did find that communication of important scientific principles and policies can struggle to gain traction in the face of controversial issues. In the future, public health communicators should keep these factors in mind when communicating via the news media and emphasize the scientific underpinning of our understanding of the disease and appropriate responses.