Ebola Coverage: The More You Watch, The Less You Know?

A new poll last week revealed disturbing trends about the increasingly dire media coverage of the Ebola story in the United States. Measuring the rising anxiety among news consumers, a Rutgers-Eagleton poll of New Jersey residents found that 69 percent are at least somewhat concerned about the deadly disease spreading in the U.S.

The truly strange finding was that people who said they were following the story most closely were the ones with the most inaccurate information about Ebola. The more information they consumed about the dangerous disease, the less they knew about it. How is that even possible?

Poll director David Redlawsk cast an eye of blame on the news media. “The tone of the coverage seems to be increasing fear while not improving understanding,” Redlawsk told a reporter. “You just have to turn on the TV to see the hysteria of the ”talking heads" media. It's really wall to wall. The crawls at the bottom of the screen are really about fear. And in all the fear and all the talking, there's not a lot of information."

While the Rutgers-Eagleton poll was a statewide survey, not a national one, it's reasonable to assume that the Ebola information phenomena documented in New Jersey is happening elsewhere, as a series of nationwide polls have highlighted just how little Americans understand about the rare virus.

“Reporters can be part of the problem or part of the solution,” Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings announced at press conference on October 2, as the city began to deal with its local health crisis following the disclosure that an Ebola victim was being treated in a city hospital. 

Two weeks later, what's the verdict?

It's not fair to suggest most of the Ebola coverage to date has been overly hysterical, or that none of it has served an important purpose during the time of a possible health crisis. But too much of it has been based on fear and hypotheticals and driven by a weird look-at-us-now undercurrent. “It's almost like they're crossing their fingers for an outbreak,” noted Jon Stewart earlier this month, mocking the wildly overexcited television coverage.   

CNN actually invited onto the network a fiction writer who wrote an Ebola thriller in the 1980s to hype unsubstantiated fears about the transmission of the virus. CNN's Ashleigh Banfield speculated that “All ISIS would need to do is send a few of its suicide killers  into an Ebola-affected zones and then get them on some mass transit, somewhere where they would need to be to affect the most damage.” And colleague Don Lemon lamented that government officials seemed “too confident” they can contain the Ebola scare.

Of course, abetting the culture of Ebola misinformation is Fox News, which has served as a cauldron of fear mongering and anti-government paranoia in recent weeks: 

Elisabeth Hasselbeck of Fox News literally demanded that we put the country on lockdown, banning all travel in and out. In a bit of race-baiting, Andrea Tantaros of Fox suggested that people who travel to the country and show symptoms of ebola will “seek treatment from a witch doctor” instead of go to the hospital. Fox host Steve Doocy suggested the CDC is lying about ebola because they're “part of the administration”. Fox also promoted a conspiracy theorist who is trying to claim the CDC is lying when they caution people not to panic.

The hallmark of overheated rhetoric and almost cartoonish mistrust would suggest there might be a ratings motivation lurking behind the coverage; a willingness to jack up the fear factor in order to lure viewers in. That's something PBS science correspondent Miles O'Brian touched on when he urged journalists to “take a breath” on the Ebola story. “Unfortunately it's a very competitive business we're in, and there is a perception that by hyping up this threat, you draw people's attention.”

But the attempted ratings grab hasn't led to an increase in public understanding. In August, a Harvard School of Public Health poll found that “Two-thirds of people (68%) surveyed believe Ebola spreads ”easily" (“very easily” or “somewhat easily”) from those who are sick with it."

That, of course, is inaccurate.

Fast forward to October Rutgers-Eagleton poll, and despite the enormous amount of recent Ebola news coverage, those who followed the story more closely were more likely to believe Ebola can be spread easily, even though the disease cannot be spread like the flu.

Even more recently, according to a Harrison Poll survey, “Three out of four of those polled said they are concerned that people carrying Ebola will infect others before showing symptoms themselves.” As Medical Daily noted, “This is a medical impossibility.” (Ebola cannot spread until the symptoms present themselves.)

The Ebola virus is clearly being treated as one of the biggest, most important on-going news stories of the year, especially by cable news outlets. The fact that Americans have such a weak grasp on the facts doesn't speak well for the quality of coverage to date.