It’s a sign of the current cynicism of the public that so many people fear an imminent outbreak of Ebola in the U.S. But government incompetence that creates skepticism feeds into the fear-mongering of television-news divisions who seem to have turned into Ebola networks.
Dr. Richard Besser, ABC News’ chief health and medical editor, was acting director of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention in 2009. He witnessed that year’s sensationalized coverage of a swine-flu outbreak. He now sees the same pattern with Ebola: “The big misconception about Ebola is that there’s risk to people in America. And that’s just not the case.”
He himself has seen the impact of fear about Ebola. He returned this month from a reporting trip to Liberia where he was careful to never to be in the home of an Ebola patient or a facility where patients were treated. But many colleagues still shun him. He had to apply his own makeup for one show when the makeup artist wouldn’t touch him. His speech at Case Western University this week was cancelled, with school officials suggesting he use Skype instead. “I look to universities to promote correct information. I thought that they took an easy way out,” he told the Hollywood Reporter.
Despite the fever-pitch nature of televised Ebola coverage, there are exceptions. On Fox News, anchor Shepard Smith went out of his way to provide context for a reporter’s conclusion that Ebola was causing “widespread panic” across the country.
“I think we both know there’s no widespread panic across the country,” Smith responded before turning to the camera to address the TV audience directly.
“You should have no concerns about Ebola at all. None. I promise,” Smith said. “Do not listen to the hysterical voices on the radio and the television or read the fear-provoking words online. The people who say and write hysterical things are being very irresponsible.”
But as for his show, Smith said, “it’s not worth the ratings and it’s not worth the politics” to say Ebola is an imminent danger when the day might come when a real panic hits.
“We do not have an outbreak of Ebola in the United States. Nowhere. We do have two health-care workers who contracted the disease from a dying man. They are isolated. There is no information to suggest that the virus has spread to anyone in the general population in America. Not one person in the general population in the United States.”
Would that more of Smith’s colleagues in the media followed his lead. Concern is one thing, but raw, unreasoning fear is something that must be combatted as a public service.