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Ebola and the media: beyond the hype

Colorized scanning electron micrograph of filamentous Ebola virus particles (green) attached and budding from a chronically infected VERO E6 cell (orange) (25,000x magnification)(photo by NIAID via Flicker)

Has the media reported the ongoing developments in the Ebola outbreak objectively or has media coverage reached such a fever pitch that it has incited panic?  

For some perspective, writer Paul Fraumeni turned to Jeffrey Dvorkin, veteran journalist and director of the University of Toronto Scarborough's journalism program. Dvorkin is a former managing editor and chief journalist for CBC Radio and served as vice-president, news and information for National Public Radio in the US and as NPR’s first news ombudsman.  

Dvorkin is a frequent commentator on the ethics of media. Check out his blog, Now the Details.

Nobody wants to minimize the terrible experience of people suffering with Ebola, but it has been fascinating to watch how the media has covered the story. What’s your take? 

This is a story with profound implications for those affected by the disease but the media, with some notable exceptions, has gone crazy. The problem has been that Ebola is not a disease we know very well and the description of the symptoms is horrific. All of this plays into a sense of cultural entropy that we seem to be going through where the world seems to be going to hell in a handcart and nothing seems to work anymore and there is a powerful sense of general dysfunction. The media has latched onto this for a number of reasons and it is disturbing that the media seems to have, in general, lost its ability to provide context and perspective.  

What did you think of the media coverage when that man in Texas died from Ebola?  

I think it speaks to a post-9/11 anxiety where the slightest deviation from the norm now has the potential to throw us back to that terrible time after 9/11 where we didn’t know what was going on, we couldn’t make sense of it, and we didn’t know very clearly why it was happening. That sense of a lack of control in politics, in government, in media is easily ignited in times like this.  

You don’t want to minimize the seriousness of the outbreak, but the way the media has handled this says more about the media’s anxiety about the state of its industry than it does about the seriousness of the Ebola outbreak outside of Africa.  

My sense is that at a time when media organizations are very anxious about how they are going to survive, about what the consequences of digital media are on legacy media – radio, television and print – there is a desire to milk this for all it’s worth. As CNN found out when they did the disappearance of the Malaysian Airlines story, every time they touched that story and attempted to not explain but simply to reference it, the ratings skyrocketed. Brian Stelter, on CNN’s Reliable Sources, tweeted yesterday that whenever they do the Ebola story, the audience jumps by about 50 per cent.  

And they’re not the only ones. In Canadian media, the CBC seems to be doing the same thing as well, especially on television.  

They are all so anxious about missing an opportunity to nail down an audience by frightening people into submission and into loyalty to their brand that it’s created a deformed kind of media hysteria.  

How have you seen news reporting evolving from, say, 25 years ago?   

The possibilities for digital media are so great now. Legacy media organizations are not just competing among themselves, they’re competing with Buzzfeed and Huffington Post and every person who has a website. And that’s making it much more difficult for media organizations to say, “OK, we’re going to take a step back, we’re going to figure this out, we’re going to provide context and valued information to our audience because that’s the way we can serve them best.”  

That’s increasingly disappearing. I have to say that I was just watching the BBC World Service and they were doing a good job in saying, “Here’s the problem, here’s the disease, but here’s how it’s getting better.” With that approach, they were able to say that in Ghana and Nigeria Ebola has been brought under control, that Africans are not the hopeless and hapless people that the media has framed them to be and that this is a story that can be explained in a certain way.  

The BBC did an excellent job in saying, “Let’s roll this back a bit.”  

So I’m hopeful that this story will calm down over the next week or two, although you now hear the media saying, “And there are predictions that there will be 10,000 new cases by December.” There’s no way you can predict that.