MEDIA
10/21/2014 04:05 pm ET Updated Oct 26, 2014

Let's Help The Media Be Better On Ebola

CNN

Over at Talking Points Memo, Josh Marshall has noted an important milestone in our ongoing fight with Ebola: This past Sunday was the last day of the quarantine imposed on those who had the closest contact with Thomas Eric Duncan, the Liberian man who succumbed to the Ebola virus in America, before he was hospitalized. To the best of anyone's knowledge, none of the people quarantined have shown symptoms of the disease. This is, tentatively, some very good news.

But it's rather bad news for the media, who -- having worked to beat a dire tale of harum-scarum into the public consciousness for the past month -- now have a lot for which to answer. The effects of the media's Ebola feeding frenzy are manifold. Three days ago, panicky parents pressured a Maine school district into putting a teacher on three weeks of administrative leave simply because she'd stayed at a hotel 10 miles from Texas Health Presbyterian hospital while attending a conference. In Mississippi, students were yanked from class because their principal had recently visited Zambia, which is many thousands of miles away from the West African Ebola outbreak. Syracuse University disinvited The Washington Post's Michel du Cille from an academic workshop because he'd been to Liberia to cover the Ebola story. At the time he was forbidden to come to Syracuse, du Cille had conclusively demonstrated that he'd not contracted Ebola.

This is all quite nuts. And none of it is Ebola's fault. It's the media's fault. This is the sort of thing that happens when you compare Ebola to the Islamic State, when you treat pulp novelists as medical experts and when you give credence to daft conspiracy theorists and their performance-art stunts. Fox News viewers were told, inaccurately, that Ebola was soon to go airborne. Joe Scarborough went full doomsday-prepper on "Meet the Press."

It is entirely unsurprising that when New Jersey residents were polled on their beliefs about the disease, the pollsters found that "people who said they were following the story most closely were the ones with the most inaccurate information about Ebola."

That's a serious problem, especially in the near term as we start hitting good-news milestones. When we emerge from our homegrown Ebola scare without a dangerous pandemic, people are going to look back on the coverage and realize it was all a bunch of hype. What happens, then, if a serious epidemic actually hits the U.S., requiring the media to do a serious job of informing the public? Consult your Aesop for the answer.

Fortunately, we are seeing some course correction in the media. The Columbia Journalism Review's David Uberti doled out some deserved plaudits to parties like Gannett Newspapers and Fox News' Shepard Smith, whose appeal last week to calm and common sense was something of a tide-turner in the cable news world. Things aren't yet perfect: This past weekend, noted Chicago Cubs expert and occasional rape trivializer George Will was allowed to come on "Fox News Sunday" and sputter some nonsense about Ebola being an airborne virus. Thankfully, host Chris Wallace managed to restore some human intelligence to the discussion.

If a rising tide of "getting it right on Ebola" is currently underway, let's take the opportunity to meet it at its crest, and offer some pointers on how this sort of story should be covered from here on out.

Use Harold Pollack's Politico Magazine story as the blueprint for coverage. Pollack's piece is the most thorough and accessible dose of real-keeping available. He assigns fault where it's due, noting that both local medical professionals and the Centers For Disease Control had "an initially bungled medical response" to Duncan's case. He also notes that the Ebola outbreak in the United States has exposed both bad policy decisions and the limitations of chronically underfunded infrastructure -- and that lawmakers of both parties bear plenty of responsibility.

Yet Pollack also concludes that "the system is actually working," and that all the flaws exposed thus far can serve as lessons for the future -- if we allow them to. A good first step would be to use his piece as the responsible foundation for future coverage and debate.

Tone down the melodrama. It's great that your production team can cook up scary graphics and dire musical stings, but have those things ever actually helped a single viewer? I am reminded of forensic psychologist Park Dietz's famous advice to the media on how to cover mass murders, such as "Don't start the story with sirens blaring," avoid "24/7 coverage," keep the murderer from becoming "some kind of anti-hero" and be sure to "localise this story to the affected community and [make it] as boring as possible in every other market."

Now, Dietz's primary concern is with keeping media from covering mass murderers in a way that inspires copycats. But many of these rules are fairly applicable here. The media can replace histrionics with calm and treat Ebola as a difficult problem that can nevertheless be broken down and solved with the application of a little knowledge and some managerial discipline.

More than anything, the media has a chance to help people think logically about this disease. As Jesse Singal recently noted at New York magazine, a nation of people who believe they're in danger of contracting Ebola will overwhelm the health care system with "folks who don't have the disease [...] but who think they do." It's better, at this point, to follow the lead of many other recent reports, and emphasize that what's currently spreading across America is the irrational fear of Ebola -- not Ebola itself.

Make your Ebola coverage a speculation-free zone. A lot of the "Ebola in America" story so far has consisted of sitting and waiting. We're waiting to see if people who've contracted the disease recover or perish. We're waiting to see if people who were in close proximity to the first group of people contract the disease themselves. We're waiting to see if the ongoing Ebola crisis in West Africa exports another rare and unlikely case of the disease to these shores.

That's a whole lot of time in which nothing is happening. If you're a professional "sit in front of a camera or laptop" person, you're going to be tempted to fill that time with stuff you heard on Twitter, or something you remember from a book or movie, or maybe stuff that came to you in a dream. Don't give in to these temptations. Fill that space with another news story. Probably something else is going on!

Don't be afraid to ask knowledgeable people the questions that arise from popular-but-mislaid fears. Singal talked to Abdulrahman El-Sayed and Sandra Galea at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health, and came away with good advice on how to keep people informed and non-panicked in the age of rampant social-media rumormongering. As Singal reports, public health officials have been trying for a while to prepare Americans for the possibility of an Ebola case in the U.S.:

But before experts can effectively explain this, they first have to face down the biggest, scariest images of the disease lodged in the public’s imagination thanks to both fictionalized accounts and sensationalistic news coverage. “You have to address everybody’s worst fears before you can have a logical conversation about it,” said El-Sayed.

Sandro Galea, also at Mailman, stressed that “Clear, consistent, honest communication is essential,” especially now, during the early days of this outbreak’s presence in the U.S., when rumors are running rampant, fueled by a lack of concrete information. “There’s no question that uncertainty allows the space for misinformation to spread,” said Galea, “which is why those in positions of authority need to be honest when there are things we don’t know.”

Many of the fears currently attached to Ebola are basically spectral, but a lot of people don't understand that. People like Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease expert from Vanderbilt University, actually welcome these questions, so go ahead and ask them. Just make sure you're talking to someone knowledgeable, and that your intent is to quell fear, rather than foment panic.

Don't give politicians too much oxygen on the subject. Unfortunately for everyone involved, "Ebola in America" became a story in the waning days of the 2014 midterm campaign, which means it's jumped into and polluted the political consciousness of America. It seems safe to assume that the vast majority of politicians who are talking about Ebola aren't actually sincere in their concern for public health. They view Ebola as a vehicle for political messaging, and they're using it to score partisan points or win elections. So politicians need to be kept on a short leash. Remember that. If you, as a reporter, must ask a politician about Ebola, stick to the policies he or she is currently able to enact and the funding he or she is currently able to provide. These people have plenty of avenues to do irresponsible stuff out of naked self-interest. There's no need to let them do it on your platform.

There is absolutely no need to hear from anyone who calls themselves a "political strategist" or "political consultant." They don't know anything about Ebola. They are only intermittently capable of offering political insights. So keep them out of the discussion. If you allow them in, they will fall back on cheap political tropes. Speaking of which...

Attention purveyors of cheap political tropes: The Ebola story isn't for you. Stay in your lane, guys. Please don't drizzle Ebola all over your content.

We don't need a piece on how Ebola is an "October surprise." Come on, now. You do know that "October surprise" refers to a semi-underhanded, last-minute gambit by a campaign that's about to lose an election, right? It does not refer to a genuinely surprising news story that happens to break just as election season is mercifully coming to an end. Calling Ebola an "October surprise" is thus either balefully stupid or baldly cynical, because it proceeds from the assumption that some "side" in an election is going to be a huge beneficiary from Ebola.

As John Hermann at The Awl puts it, it says "something else, something more sad than sinister, that, according to pre-eminent take-havers and score-callers, the actual October surprise is an out-of-control disease with no consciousness or ideology, a disease that has killed thousands of people and will kill thousands more."

Don't talk about "the optics of Ebola." Remember that a good definition of "optics" is "the actual world as viewed by ersatz eyeballs." A thing happens, and people have a perception of that thing. But then political thought-havers invent a new hallucinatory perception of the thing that happened in the hopes of creating a viral meme that re-colors everybody's original perception. In other words, "optics" is a game, one where media elites pointlessly mystify politics in order to preserve their own standing as savvy information gatekeepers. It's pretty bad form on most occasions, and it creates a lot of work for people who deal in facts. It's merely annoying when you use it to talk about politics, but when you apply it to a discussion of Ebola, it can be downright dangerous.

And then there's the K-word. What leads a person to say "[X] is the new Katrina" or "[X] is Obama's Katrina," anyway? Some percentage of the people who do this must have cynical intentions. And some other, possibly greater number are surely doing it out of pure laziness. "New thing reminds me of old thing. Hey! Maybe new thing is old thing?" It's been known to happen.

On the other, more charitable hand, maybe the people who use "Katrina" as an all-purpose term for "crisis-sounding thing" are doing so because they remember Hurricane Katrina, and have taken from it the lesson that a little preparation now is better than a lot of grief later. "It'll be Katrina all over again" could just be a well-intended attempt to galvanize a response to a problem before it becomes a catastrophe. Not a bad impulse! Unfortunately, the problem with calling everything a "Katrina" is that eventually your warning just becomes part of the background noise. I could have fairly said, "Coverage of the Ebola outbreak has been the media's Katrina." But I didn't. You should follow my example.

If you've been personally affected by the Ebola virus, do NOT behave irresponsibly. Let's say you are a doctor, employed by NBC News, to cover the Ebola crisis. Let's say that in the course of covering the Ebola crisis, you come close enough to the disease that medical authorities determine you need to be put in quarantine to ensure that you haven't been infected. Let's say that your name is Dr. Nancy Snyderman, and there was a time in the not-too-distant past that you even had your own show on teevee.

If any or all of the above happens, should you then break quarantine and go out for a snack? NO, YOU IDIOT, YOU SHOULD NOT. I can't believe this needs to be explained to anyone, but if you're a media professional and you are under quarantine, learn how to make ramen or something. College freshmen can do it.

Give the greatest weight to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. Pollack notes, accurately, that "cable TV and social media repeatedly fuel collective stupidity and fear." But it doesn't have to be that way. If poor media coverage can create an atmosphere of anxiety and misinformation, then the right kind of coverage can lead to a more active and productive public response.

To achieve this, the media needs to recognize that the true center of gravity in the Ebola story is the crisis in West Africa. That's the situation that has to be emphasized, even if we have ongoing cases of the disease in the United States. This is not to say that you don't cover what's going on in America -- that information is, of course, vital. But the origin of any domestic cases of Ebola will be West Africa. Solving that crisis solves our own.

So when you cover the story, don't forget to mention West Africa. Lead with it, focus on it, keep people up to speed with what's happening there. Talk to the people fighting the disease there. Ask policymakers tough questions about what they're going to do about it. And if you write some listicle about Ebola, end with it. Because that's where the media can do the most good right now.

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