There’s a potentially deadly disease afoot in America, with no known cure and terrifying consequences for those infected.
Ebola? Well, yes, but another bug has had far more wide-ranging consequences. Since an outbreak began in late summer, the enterovirus has sent thousands of people, primarily children, to hospitals in 43 states and the District. One strain, enterovirus D68, has apparently caused polio-like symptoms in some patients, leaving them unable to move their limbs. Four people who recently died tested positive for the disease, although the link between the virus and the deaths is unclear, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
You might not know all that from the news media’s reporting over the past few weeks. The enterovirus certainly hasn’t been ignored, but it’s a mere footnote compared with the oceanic volumes devoted to Ebola, a disease that has devastated parts of West Africa but has only one confirmed case diagnosed in the United States. CNN has been especially relentless, chasing down every conceivable Ebola angle and a few inconceivable ones, too. One segment explored the possibility of catching Ebola from a sneeze, a pet or a swimming pool (the expert answers: “really rare,” “no evidence for that” and “highly unlikely,” respectively).
For the most part, the reporting on medical aspects of the disease has been straightforward and responsible, with many stories emphasizing the relatively low risks of infection. A few commentaries, meanwhile, have lapsed into xenophobia about the African sources of the disease. One Fox News pundit, Andrea Tantaros, offered this analysis last week: “In these countries they don’t believe in traditional medical care. So someone could get off a flight and seek treatment from a witch doctor who practices Santeria,” an Afro-Caribbean religion that includes ritual animal sacrifice.
But even when the reporting is accurate, the sheer tonage of it raises a question about proportion and relative risk: Why is Ebola a media superstar when other diseases — say, enterovirus or the common flu — have more far-reaching and even deadlier consequences in this country?
The question is a familiar one to people involved in spreading the word about public-health threats. News reporting, they say, typically underplays some risks and overplays others. Mundane behaviors — smoking, overeating — don’t rate sustained media coverage yet are linked to preventable diseases that kill tens of thousands annually. Ordinary viruses, such as the flu, take a huge toll as well but don’t rate screaming headlines.
“If any or all of these issues received the levels of media coverage and public concern that Ebola was receiving, thousands of annual deaths could be prevented,” said Jay Bernhardt, the founding director of the Center for Health Communication at the University of Texas. The volume of Ebola coverage, he said, “reminds me a lot of the over-the-top coverage of serial killers or celebrity scandals in that they are far out of proportion with the risk or relevance to the general population.”
Social-science research has shown that intensive news reporting on certain diseases can distort public perceptions of their severity and the chances of contracting them. In a 2008 experiment at McMaster University in Ontario that was updated last year, researchers asked undergraduates and medical students their impressions of 10 infectious diseases. Five of the diseases (anthrax, SARS, West Nile virus, Lyme disease and avian flu) had received relatively more news media coverage than a second group of five.
Result: The “high-media frequency” diseases were rated as more serious than the more obscure diseases by both the undergraduates and the medical students. Both groups overestimated the chances they would get one of the better-reported diseases.
But that’s not to say that the media is “over-covering” a particular threat, said Meredith Young, the lead researcher on the studies, who now works at Montreal’s McGill University. “It really only is in hindsight that we can say whether a potential threat was over- or undercovered in the media and what the ‘real’ risk was of that particular infectious disease,” she wrote in an e-mail. That is, “did the threat materialize? Or did the media coverage help to prevent the threat” by warning of a potential contagion and mobilizing preventive action?
Ebola’s preeminence in the news media probably has much to do with the primal fear it inspires and the popular-culture context from which it comes. While Ebola isn’t widespread or common, those who get it are at grave risk; the mortality rate is upward of 70 percent (the far-less covered Middle East respiratory syndrome, or MERS, clocks in with a death rate of about 40 percent). Salon.com columnist Andrew O’Hehir likens Ebola to a great white shark: Your chances of encountering one are abysmally low, but so are your chances of surviving such a meeting.
Like the great white, public perceptions about Ebola have likely been primed by decades of movies, TV shows and books imagining a global contagion and resulting zombie apocalypse. More than a few news stories and TV segments lately have referred to Ebola’s “hot zone,” which was the name of a mega-selling 1994 book about the origins of the virus.
By contrast, other diseases have lesser “brand” names. Only a few people outside a medical lab had ever heard of enterovirus until a few weeks ago, despite a series of periodic outbreaks for more than 50 years.
“It’s not surprising” that Ebola is at the top of the media agenda, says Jeff Levi, executive director of the Trust for America’s Health, a nonprofit health advocacy organization based in Washington. “The novel is more interesting and frightening to people. Part of me gets it. But it’s something we in the public-health community struggle with all the time.”
Despite the low odds of an Ebola pandemic in the United States, Peter Sandman, an expert in risk communication, says the story nevertheless warrants the attention it’s getting.
“The public has always been interested in risks in proportion to how much fear or outrage they arouse, not in proportion to how much hazard they present,” he said via e-mail. “Since media coverage follows people’s interests, reporters inevitably cover scary diseases that aren’t very dangerous more than dangerous diseases that aren’t very scary. That may drive public health professionals crazy, but it’s a fact of life. Journalism is about news, not education.”
He added: “Ebola has all the hallmarks of a scary disease. It is novel, dramatic, horrifying, potentially catastrophic. It’s perfect for horror movies; why wouldn’t it be perfect for news stories?”
So, the blanket coverage — of the hospital admission mishap in Dallas, of the debates over travel and the repetitive reporting about the whys and wherefores of transmission — is important cautionary information in the event things get worse: “At least for the moment, U.S. investigative Ebola reporting is flourishing, and that’s a blessing,” he says.
But ultimately the Ebola story isn’t about Americans and America, Sandman said. The heart of the story is West Africa, where Ebola still rages. As long as the media focus remains on the United States, it will miss the potential “sparks” that could alight from Africa, finding their way into populous and underdeveloped cities around the world.
At which point the global contagion scenarios of so many movies could become more than just science fiction: “Spark suppression is going to be the most important Ebola story,” he said. “I think it’s essential to get this story out, because it is a political and ethical story as much as a technical story.”