Don’t Blame CNN for the Ebola Panic

If you crunch the data, the mainstream media has actually been pretty levelheaded.


No wonder we’re scared of Ebola. The current outbreak could become the “definitive humanitarian disaster of our generation,” warns Oxfam. World Bank head Jim Yong Kim goes as far as to say that “we are losing the battle,” and now it’s come to the heart of hipster Brooklyn. Last week, President Barack Obama attempted to calm an increasingly jittery public by arguing that “what we’re seeing now is not an outbreak or an epidemic of Ebola in America” and that “we can’t give in to hysteria or fear.” 

And then, of course, just turn on cable news. But in the midst of the growing hysteria over Ebola, to what degree is  American news media coverage fueling the panic happening in the United States? Does the arrival of a “foreign” epidemic on domestic shores cause a refocusing of American policy? And, what can we learn about media coverage and emerging foreign policy issues?

With the country quickly turning into Quarantine Nation, a vomiting woman causes panic at the Pentagon, and some errant saliva triggers a hazmat response in Dallas, Ebola hysteria would certainly seem to be rapidly taking root in America. Indeed, despite canceling his travel for two days to appear to take charge, a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll suggests the country is not buying the president’s words of calm, with two-thirds of Americans saying that they are concerned the pandemic may soon spread to the United States. 

Ebola fear intensified on Twitter in August and quickly became a trending topic, flooding the platform with rampant misinformation that has already led to at least two deaths. Shortly after, on Aug. 10, adding to those fears, the official Yahoo News Twitter account was hacked, and proceeded to announce a massive outbreak in Atlanta> with 145 infections. The mainstream media’s coverage of the outbreak has been subjected to similar criticism for potentially fanning the flames of Ebola hysteria, with the Associated Press going as far as to issue an advisory to editors on Friday not to cover “suspected cases.” Yet as Jon Stewart so aptly showcased last week in a segment titled, “Au Bon Panic,” for every panic-stricken warning of a domestic pandemic, a different broadcast counters that the domestic risk is minimal. What has the mainstream media coverage of the outbreak looked like since the first formal announcement of the outbreak in March 2014? 

The timeline below uses the Internet Archive’s Television News Archive to count the number of American news broadcasts per week mentioning the word “Ebola” in 2014.

The initial announcement of the outbreak in March 2014 appears only as a small blip, quickly fading from view until late July, when the news emerged that two Americans had been infected with the disease while offering medical care in Liberia. Coverage peaks in early August as they are airlifted back to the United States for treatment, then levels off again until Thomas Eric Duncan arrived in Dallas on September 20 and became the first Ebola patient diagnosed in the United States.  

Figure 1: Number of American television news broadcasts per week mentioning “Ebola.” (Click to enlarge.)

Former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan argued in an interview with the BBC last week that “when you look at the evolution of the crisis, the international community really woke up when the disease got to America and Europe.”

The timeline above certainly seems to support his claim: in the four months between outbreak declaration and the two American infections, more than 1,440 people were infected and 826 diedin West Africa, yet the growing pandemic failed to warrant even the slightest attention in the United States until it quite literally landed on its doorstep.

The map below, which shows the density of mentions of every city on Earth in American television news June 2009 to September 2013, suggests why: Africa simply does not feature prominently in American television news media. Duncan Watts of Microsoft Research implied recently that the stories that receive the most attention are those that are “terrible and violent and people are dying,” yet it seems the missing piece of that equation is that the story must also involve the West: hundreds dying in Africa is of little interest, while a single individual in the United States triggers intense coverage.

Figure 2: Geography of American television news. (Click to enlarge.)

As domestic news coverage of the disease significantly increases here in the United States, what exactly is that coverage saying? Is it urging calm or is it contributing to the panic? 

Using a set of over 2,238 emotions and themes assessed from global news coverage each day by the GDELT Project, the timeline below plots the overall “tone” of English language media coverage of the outbreak, using an intensity scale where less negative numbers indicate less negativity in coverage.  The language of the closed captioning of each broadcast is assessed using special dictionaries that capture emotion based on linguistic use.  A steady decrease in the negativity of coverage is seen to begin in the beginning of July 2014, as international aid bodies increasingly turn their attention to the outbreak and pledge funding and supplies. Yet, how could it be possible that as the pandemic has spread and the death count increased, that tone could actually become less negative? Examining CNN’s coverage over the past seven months offers insight into how the emotional language has changed over the past seven months.

Figure 3: Tone timeline of English-language news coverage on Ebola (less negative number indicates less negativity in the news). (Click to enlarge.)

For example, a March 27 CNN article contained such reassuring phrases as “an outbreak like this can be devastating,” “one of the world’s most deadly diseases,” “highly infectious virus that can kill up to 90 percent of the people who catch it, causing terror,” “no vaccination against it,” “the Zaire strain [suspected in Guinea] is considered the most deadly,” and “no specific treatments for Ebola.” (Note: the article has since been heavily modified — text here is from original version accessed at 6:24PM EST that day.)

Early news coverage had to introduce a disease known only in passing to most Americans with headings like “What is Ebola?” and “What are Ebola’s Symptoms?” while discussions of Ebola emphasized its gruesome nature in visceral detail. The March CNN article above described its symptoms as “sudden onset of fever, weakness, muscle pain, headaches and a sore throat … rash, red eyes, hiccups, chest pains and difficulty breathing and swallowing … vomiting, diarrhea, impaired kidney and liver function and sometimes internal and external bleeding.” Similarly, a March 29 CNN article quotes Medecins Sans Frontieres once again calling it “one of the world’s most deadly diseases” and notes that “there is no cure and it’s fatal in most cases.” 

Fast forward to July and an CNN interview with a survivor noted that “the death rate in this outbreak has dropped to roughly 60 percent” and “it doesn’t have to be a death sentence if treated early.”

Once two Americans were infected, experimental medications and specialized medical care became a focal point of coverage: August CNN coverage featured “miraculous” new treatments: “Within an hour of receiving the medication, Brantly’s condition dramatically improved … by the next morning, Brantly was able to take a shower on his own.” By September, another American survivor announced “the CDC has declared me safe and free of the virus” and that the “care was so excellent, so speedy, so prompt.” Gone were the visceral discussions of Ebola’s symptoms, replaced with the image of modern medicine to the rescue.  Even in the midst of two additional Ebola cases, mid-October CNN coverage mixed discussion of “desperation and despair” back in Africa with human interest stories on the two nurses, calling one “a real sweetheart” and noting the other “loves her job.” In fact, one CNN article contrasted the unfounded fear in the United States against the very real tragedy in Africa that is receiving scant coverage: “while the United States struggles to contain the fear stirred up … [back in Liberia] they are struggling to come to terms with the mounting death toll.”

Finally, the timeline below plots the intensity of anxiety in English news coverage of the outbreak. Here, a gradual increase in anxiousness is seen over the past half-year, but the only two substantial surges are in late April 2014, discussing the stigma attached to survivors, sudden surges on Oct. 12 (the first infected Dallas nurse) and Oct. 15 (the second infected Dallas nurse), though the news has calmed in the days since. No major surge in anxiousness is seen in the announcement of the original infection, only when it became clear that despite protocols two nurses were infected treating him.

Figure 4. Intensity of anxiety in English-language news coverage on Ebola. (Click to enlarge.)

Kofi Annan was right when he claimed that Ebola only became newsworthy when it spread from Africa to the West: American news media devoted only a handful of mentions to the pandemic even as the death toll passed 800.  Only when the disease literally landed on American soil did it suddenly become news.  Yet, coverage of the disease has remarkably become less negative over the past seven months, transitioning from graphic descriptions of the disease’s symptoms to the “miraculous” interventions of modern medicine and stories of survival.

As William Randolph Hearst famously noted, conflict sells newspapers; yet in the case of Ebola it seems that coverage has trended towards emphasizing recovery than end-of-the-world panic. Even the level of anxiety, while trending higher in news reports, has not spiraled out of control.

Contrast this with social media, which has already led to confirmed deaths from misinformation and forced the CDC to become far more active at countering online rumors about the disease. Much as social media was of little use in early warning of the disease, it is proving to be a dangerous amplifier of misinformation, fear and panic.

We can no longer ignore issues on the other side of the world: in our globalized world, foreign policy issues can become domestic security issues with a single flight. Similarly, despite massive investment in data mining social media, it failed to provide early warning of the outbreak and has dangerously fueled Ebola hysteria in the United States.

Despite the glib joy many take in knocking the mainstream media’s coverage of this global outbreak, these news outlets have not only provided the earliest warning of the outbreak, but have provided a relatively level picture of disease’s spread. And, shock of shocks, the media even appears to be portraying increasingly optimistic view of the outbreak. And yet public opinion polls seem to be tracking the paranoia of social media rather than the optimism of the mainstream media, suggesting a need to redouble efforts to understand and engage in the social sphere. So cheer up, Anderson Cooper! It’s not your fault America’s freaking out … this time.

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