An Epidemic of Fear: The Media’s Response to Ebola


Darby Hobbs

A few weeks ago, I found myself taking a quiz to see if there was any possibility that I might contract Ebola. After the quiz informed me that there was not a chance I would contract Ebola, I realized how ridiculous it was that I was even taking the quiz. Then I realized what was even more ridiculous was that I had thought that I could potentially catch the virus from an outbreak located half way across the world. I then started thinking about why I was concerned and realized that it was due to the media.

The media has capitalized on the outbreak of Ebola, not because of the real threat it poses to Americans, but because of the economic gains they can achieve from instilling fear in their audiences.

Phrases such as “Ebola emergency,” “spiraling out of control,” and “spreading faster than efforts to contain it” plague the morning headlines everyday to grab attention with the outlandish sensationalism and increase audience numbers. A reporter from CNN even referred to the outbreak as “the ISIS of biological agents.” This alarmist language inspiring fear does nothing but encourage responses that are extremist and lead people to believe their lives are at risk when really that is not the case at all.

As of October 25th, 2014, the Center for Disease Control reported 10,141 cases of Ebola worldwide and 4,922 deaths. Clearly, Ebola is a serious problem that needs to be addressed. However, of those cases only 3 were in America and only 1 person has died. So why has the media instilled so much fear in Americans?

To start, Ebola fits a narrative. It is a story, albeit a horror story, that can be told. Audiences love stories, and thus viewership increases. There are characters, drama, and fear that people can follow on a day-to-day basis. Ebola has become somewhat of a novelty, with people even fabricating stories such as Ebola victims coming back to life in zombie form as well as outlandish conspiracies that really make no sense at all.

The reporting also fits in four media biases that reporters can thrive on: personalization, fragmentation, dramatization, and authority-disorder. We have been able to track the stories of the three Americans contracted with the virus. All of the information we know about them makes us feel personally connected to their struggle with the virus. We may also feel personally threatened that the disease could spread to areas we are familiar with or we could even contract the virus despite being nowhere near West Africa. The dramatization of the virus is shown in the amount of fear it has created in comparison to the amount of risk it actually possesses. As for fragmentation, the media picks out the most important or the most lucrative facts and focuses on those without showing the whole picture. Lastly, Democrats and Republicans have taken this as an opportunity to pin the blame on the other party, despite it being neither of their faults.

There are many dangerous repercussions of the media’s irresponsibility. To start, the outrageous amount of fear instilled in people is unnecessary as the possibly risk of one contracting Ebola is incredibly low. People may react to the threat when it is really not a threat at all. Also, other stories that are equally as important if not more important get left behind. Ebola has knocked some stories about the economy, foreign policy, and domestic issues out of the headlines. These stories most likely affect citizens more than the risk of Ebola does. Another major issue is how Ebola has over shadowed health risks that are incredibly dangerous in America. Heart Disease kills almost 600,000 people per year in America. Cancer kills almost 577,000. Not to mention other issues like the flu which kills almost 54,000 people and suicide, which kills about 40,000. Where are the sensational headlines about these issues? Why is the media not focusing on issues where heightened awareness could saves thousands of lives? The answer is simply because it is not lucrative.

The Ebola outbreak is scary, but it is not as scary as the media has portrayed it to be. What is really to be feared here is what the media has turned into. The media acting on capitalism instead of facts is not the function it was created to serve. We as an audience should try our best not to feed into this fear, but if you are still afraid you’re going to contract Ebola, here is the quiz to assuage all your fears.

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