Image: Fox News reports on the 'Ebola quarantine controversy' 27 October 2014

The Ebola crisis has been described by the WHO as “the most severe, acute health emergency seen in modern times” and national governments, aid organisations and others have reacted to the crisis at this level. But what about public understandings of the crisis, and more specifically, what about the role of the media in contributing to those levels of public understandings? This question becomes even more pertinent when you consider the recent warning from WHO Director-General Margaret Chan that the majority of economic costs of any outbreak “come from irrational and disorganized efforts of the public to avoid infection.” She explained that public education can help governments avoid economic disruption. So is our media educating or just frightening us? How does media help create narratives of understanding?

There is no doubt that the case of Ebola epitomizes the ingredients of a ‘good’ news story. It also fits rather too neatly into familiar themes from film and drama particularly in terms of ‘body horror’.

When the virus began to affect citizens in America as well as parts of Western Africa journalists at opposing ends of the political spectrum rushed to make pronouncements about the source of the problem and the ‘obvious’ solution (whether this was shutting ports, introducing appropriate screening at airports or refusing to process immigration papers). Scaremongering headlines accompanied by images of US citizens outside the White House wearing biohazard suits were typical and the deluge of media reporting seemed to play on the fears of a misinformed public. As Guardian commentator pizzarocket posted in response to the story that Mount Sinai hospital in New York City was treating a patient who visited the emergency room with Ebola-like symptoms:

I guess it starts to seem like all those people whom I ridiculed for being prepared for an extreme zombie/revolution/biohazard scenario will have the last laugh..

Anyone got some room left in their bunker? :c

A CNN poll found that 36% of American voters reported that concerns about Ebola would play a role in how they would vote in the midterm elections – the third most important single issue behind ISIS and health care. What was not clear was the manner in which this concern would impact on how they voted. The scare mongering within the US has even been used to comic effect with the more outlandish headlines satirized by pundits including The Daily Show presenter Jon Stewart:

But this approach has drawn accusations that the liberal media are highly selective in their criticism. NY post columnist John Podhoretz wrote about what he terms ‘Freaking out about ebola freakout’ where he argues that the US midterm elections were a key factor in media coverage.  As he puts it

“Liberal commentators are essentially claiming that the supposed Ebola freakout is a Republican-engineered crisis — that it’s part and parcel of the “politics of fear” and a stand-in for hostility to immigration and hatred of other cultures. More likely, the anti-freakout freakout is a symptom of liberal and Democratic fear. The fear is this: this latest piece of bad news from abroad after a year of uninterrupted bad news — ISIS and Ukraine and the instability and chaos bred by the general foreign-policy meltdown of the Obama administration — spells the end of their hopes for the midterm elections”.

By contrast the UK media coverage of the cases has been largely presented by the same satirists as a counterpoint to US reporting. It has been depicted as both considered and measured.

This discrepancy speaks to wider debates about news media reporting. For example, there is a view that we now need an entirely fresh approach to media reporting to ensure that the story is reported from as many angles as possible. The ability of digital journalism to link communities has been cited as evidence of how online news can reinvigorate democracy (or more negatively offer a ‘speed it up and spread it thin’ approach).

Whichever way you look at it, few would dispute that we now have unique opportunities. This is exemplified by the emergence of a single issue website Ebola Deeply, which comes from the team behind Syria Deeply.  As reported in the Guardian, the team provides reporting by journalists in affected countries as well technologists and experts in the field. Former TV news correspondent  Lara Setrakian explains,

“There needs to be something that helps get users – readers, viewers – on-boarded to a story, understanding enough of the narrative that they can find the next piece more interesting and engaging,” Setrakian says. “When [the media] fade in and out of reporting on certain issues it becomes very hard for our audience to catch up on what happened in the space between.”

She argues that it is not the fault of mainstream media or one news organisation “It is simply the systematic outcome of general-interest news reporting and a very complex world,” she says. “Some of the news coverage [of Ebola] has definitely stoked hysterical fears. But it is just the nature of the story that is so frightening. Even the most straight-forward news coverage is going to stoke fears.”

The Guardian reports one of the motivations for the site is that the Ebola story lacks “a kind of coherent narrative”; that it is difficult to predict how audiences will make sense of the media coverage of Ebola. In this context it is worth remembering early reporting of HIV and AIDS in the mainstream UK media. This too lacked “a coherent narrative” and studies that explored the complex interaction between media reporting, public opinion and dynamics of power highlighted the powerful role that media messages can, and did, have.

Audiences are not cultural dupes and people were able to actively discount many of the salacious myths concerning transmission of HIV by the simple power of logic. At the same time there is little doubt that stories of ‘AIDS  in Africa’ fitted well with deeply held cultural assumptions, as an embedded racism within (White) audiences.  People were all too willing to associate ‘Africa’ with images of sickness and disease.

Of course it is not only news and documentary that carry such stories. Plagues, viruses and epidemic disease regularly feature in popular media and frequently shed light on societal reactions to infection and containment.  In films such as Outbreak (1995) and Contagion (2011) the epidemiological specificities are less important than the aftermath of disease and the social disruption they cause to society, ‘normal life’ and powerful institutions. As Willa Paskin argues “We turn catastrophe into narrative because it makes ungainly events comprehensible, creating a frame of happenings that might not otherwise have a frame”. The motivation for Simply Ebola to create “a kind of coherent narrative” across media outlets both factual and fictional will it seems help to provide this narrative but it remains unclear how this will help, at all, with ‘public education’.