There is an old adage in journalism that “if it bleeds, it leads,” meaning stories about violence and death often get the most prominent coverage. From the past week of sensational news coverage, and especially in reactions on social media, it is clear this adage applies as much to rare infectious diseases as it does to mayhem. As a health communication expert, I can say that although it might help to sell newspapers, it often does more harm than good.
Ebola hemorrhagic fever (HF) has been present for several decades in central Africa. Patients with Ebola HF often suffer severe symptoms, including internal and external bleeding, and most people who contract the virus will die, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Although this is a terrifying disease, it is important to remember that, at present, the odds of people living in the United States contracting the virus are about the same as being struck and killed by a meteor: essentially zero. Other than the two American physicians who were brought home to receive medical care in a state-of-the-art isolation ward at Emory University Hospital, there have been no known cases of Ebola HF in the U.S.
The virus can only be transmitted through contact with bodily fluids of an infected patient — not through the air, food or drinks. But when examining the level and tenor of much of the media coverage of Ebola HF, one might assume that this virus has already spread throughout our country, which it has not. For example, the full-page headline in New York’s Daily News recently read, “EBOLA SCARE IN THE CITY.”
This is sensationalized journalism, and one unintended consequence of attention-grabbing media coverage is that it causes people to become fearful at levels that are far disproportionate to the actual risk. Sometimes that fear can turn to panic, resulting in negative beliefs and even dangerous behaviors.
Social media offers a window into the high levels of anxiety felt by many Americans. For example, the CDC’s recently posted infographic on Ebola HF transmission has so far resulted in more than 1,000 comments and 12,000 shares on its Facebook page. This is in contrast to 76 shares and 29 comments on a recent rabies posting. Rarely has a CDC health message gone so viral. Many posted comments are reasonable and demonstrate an understanding of the low risks here in the U.S., but other comments are cynical or even hysterical in tone. Plus, many people express a lack of trust in the government telling the truth about the risks. One comment read: “Don’t believe the propaganda that mainstream media is putting out there, CDC is masking the pandemic that can spread!!”
Complex and rapidly evolving health issues pose major communication challenges that are not easily addressed in headlines and tweets. Our government and the CDC have done an excellent job sharing clear and understandable facts about Ebola HF through both old and new communication channels, especially social media. Numerous journalists and news outlets, such as Dr. Nancy Snyderman from NBC news and Dr. Richard Besser from ABC news, have done an outstanding job of explaining this frightening infectious disease in a manner that increases understanding without inciting fear. But sadly, many other news outlets have not.
To be better prepared for future health communication challenges, journalists should be trained to better understand and report complex health issues in ways that are interesting yet understandable and accurate. Doctors and scientists should be better trained to work with the news media to translate complex information into accessible facts and stories. Finally, government agencies should continue to leverage social media as a rapid and popular channel for sharing health information with the public in a manner that is easily understood. It is through this frequent, clear, accurate and accessible information sharing that governmental agencies can increase the trust they receive from the American public, which, in turn, can encourage people to follow science-based guidance to protect themselves and their families. But when it comes to health reporting, sensationalized coverage should not be part of the story.
Jay M. Bernhardt is a professor and founding director of the Center for Health Communication in the Moody College of Communication at The University of Texas at Austin and serves as the Everett D. Collier Centennial Chair in Communication. From 2005 to 2010, he served as director of the National Center for Health Marketing at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
A version of this op-ed appeared in the Austin American Statesman.