You know an issue has become a nationwide phenomenon when there are articles published about how the media is handling coverage of said issue. Ebola may be one of the best examples of a prominent story spreading like wildfire via media in recent memory—and there isn’t enough water in the Atlantic to squelch these flames.
While Ebola is, without a doubt, a serious international medical concern that deserves a great deal of ink and air time, there is a delicate balance required to deliver the news accurately and sufficiently without causing a media-induced panic. Let’s take a closer look.
The chicken or the egg.
Who’s to blame for this media feeding frenzy? The media for covering (and, some would argue, sensationalizing) the Ebola “outbreak” a little too exhaustively, or consumers for hanging on every last word the media publishes? Even when there is no news to share about the Ebola outbreak, people are talking about it and publications are writing about it, as evidenced in this recent Detroit Free Press article highlighting Governor Rick Snyder’s announcement that, while there are no Ebola cases in Michigan presently, the state is still preparing.
Granted, there are now 10 Michiganders who are at a low risk of having Ebola being monitored for the virus. But the fact that individuals who have “no known exposure to Ebola, no symptoms and are in generally good health” are being monitored begs the question of whether they would be without the media microscope constantly covering the outbreak.
It is extremely common to hear people complain about how negative the news is today. However, it has been proven time and again that controversial coverage gets the most viewers and readers. So, what is the media supposed to do? Perhaps we’re the reason why the latest natural disaster, school shooting or Ebola update is making the front page, bumping the heartwarming or most directly impactful piece of news to page 3.
Or, are we conditioned to feed off of the negativity that tends to make headlines?
While that question remains unanswered (and likely always will), it is clear from the 15 million+ Google search results for Ebola (many of them news features), that we’re reading what they’re writing.
The Ebola social media effect.
News has had a significant impact on consumers and consumer perception long before people were tweeting, live streaming, sharing and (insert social media buzzword here). Now, when a story is published online or a video is posted to YouTube, it is dispersed through countless channels to consumers the world over within seconds. Social media has taken the power of media to spread news—good and bad—and awareness about issues—important and trivial—and increased it exponentially.
There are pros and cons to the social media effect. On the one hand, social media can be a digital rumor mill, as evidenced by the statement the Iowa Department of Public Health was forced to release after fear-inciting tweets continued to pop up, even after patients tested for Ebola were released with a clean bill of health.
On the other hand, social media can be used as a powerful platform to raise awareness and, in the case of Dr. Richard Besser, fight ill-founded fear that is the direct result of lack of understanding or misinformation.
With U.S. News touting mobile phones and social media as a strong aid in the Ebola fight, and CBSNews sharing an equally compelling story about how social media is simply spreading the fear faster, it seems the social media effect is about even in the battle against Ebola.
With election season upon us, the Ebola outbreak has offered yet another topic upon which politicians can take a stance. Without question, the ongoing commentary from current and aspiring political figures has further fueled the Ebola media fire, including widely covered New Jersey Governor (and supposed White House hopeful) Chris Christie’s controversial response to the treatment of quarantined nurse, Kaci Hickox. While it remains to be seen how the political response to the Ebola virus will weigh in at the polls, it is an issue that is increasingly elevated based largely on when it is unfolding.
Only time will tell.
There is really no telling how long the Ebola “media outbreak” will persist. The short answer—as long as American’s are still gobbling it up.
So, tell me, are you fueling the fire or turning off the hose?