REPORT: Ebola Coverage On TV News Plummeted After Midterms

Outlets Air Nearly 1,000 Ebola Segments In 4 Weeks Before Midterms, Only 50 Segments In 2 Weeks After Elections

In early October, the GOP developed a plan to make the federal government's response to Ebola a central part of its midterm elections strategy. Television media played into Republicans' hands, helping to foment panic about the disease. Following the diagnosis of a handful of U.S. Ebola patients, the major broadcast networks ran nearly 1,000 segments about the virus in the four weeks leading up to the elections. Coverage of the disease plummeted in the two weeks following Election Day, with the same networks running fewer than 50 total segments.

Massive Disparity In Ebola Coverage Before And After Election Day

Evening Broadcast And Cable News Aired Nearly 1,000 Segments On Ebola In The Four Weeks Before Election Day. Between October 7 and November 3, the four weeks before the midterm elections, evening broadcast and cable news collectively aired 975 segments on the Ebola virus. CNN focused on Ebola-related coverage the most, with 335 total segments before the elections. Fox News followed with 281 segments, and MSNBC aired 222. CBS led the broadcast networks with 54 segments. NBC followed with 44, and ABC aired 39 segments.

Ebola Coverage Dropped Dramatically Following The Midterms. In the two weeks following the elections, evening broadcast and cable news have only aired 49 total segments related to Ebola. CNN's 335 segments in the four weeks preceding the election dropped to just 10 segments in the two weeks after the elections. Fox News' 281 segments dropped to 10. MSNBC's 222 segments dropped to 13. CBS' 54 segments dropped to six, NBC's 44 segments dropped to five, and ABC's 39 segments dropped to four.

Ebola segments on evening cable news

Ebola segments on evening broadcast news

GOP Made Ebola “Central” To Campaign Strategy As Media Coverage Became Hysterical

Republicans Wanted To Make Ebola Response “Central In Their Attacks Against Democrats.” According to an October 9 New York Times report, Republicans sought to make “questions of how safe we are,” including from Ebola, a primary focus of their campaigns:

Darkness is enveloping American politics.

With four weeks to go before the midterm elections, Republicans have made questions of how safe we are -- from disease, terrorism or something unspoken and perhaps more ominous -- central in their attacks against Democrats. Their message is decidedly grim: President Obama and the Democratic Party run a government that is so fundamentally broken it cannot offer its people the most basic protection from harm.

Hear it on cable television and talk radio, where pundits and politicians play scientists speculating on whether Ebola will mutate into an airborne virus that kills millions. See it in the black-hooded, machine-gun-brandishing Islamic extremists appearing in campaign ads. Read about it in the unnerving accounts of the Secret Service leaving Mr. Obama and his family exposed.

Republicans believe they have found the sentiment that will tie congressional races together with a single national theme...

Republicans like Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas and Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana -- all possible 2016 presidential candidates -- have accused Mr. Obama of leaving Americans vulnerable to the Ebola epidemic. Conservative media like the Drudge Report have created crude puns to rhyme the president's last name with the virus. The Daily Caller has christened him “President Ebola.” [New York Times10/9/14]       

Media Criticized For “Breathless, Alarmist Reports” And “Wall-To-Wall Coverage” Of Ebola In The U.S. USA Today media columnist Rem Rieder pointed out that the press coverage of Ebola in the U.S. has been dramatically disproportionate to the number of people it effects, criticizing not only the “breathless, alarmist reports” but the “wall-to-wall coverage communicates the idea that the end is nigh, even if the coverage is peppered with the appropriate disclaimers.” From his column:

Four cases -- three of them involving health care workers who have had close contact with Ebola patients -- is hardly an epidemic. And the disease, while deadly once you get it, is not spread through the air, only via bodily fluids. So it's pretty hard to get.

That leads to a big-time journalistic juggling act, one in which it is all too easy to drop the balls.

And cable, off course, has dropped plenty of them. Witness the devastating collage of Hysteria TV put together by Jon Stewart earlier this month. The breathless, alarmist reports, many from CNN and Fox, are the antithesis of what responsible journalists should be doing.

As was the ludicrous effort by CNN's Ashleigh Banfield to hammer the notion that Ebola is the ISIS of biological agents and raise the specter of suicide attackers brandishing Ebola.

But you don't have to go to such theater of the absurd lengths to do damage. The very fact of wall-to-wall coverage communicates the idea that the end is nigh, even if the coverage is peppered with the appropriate disclaimers. I was struck by that while watching CNN last Friday, the day after New York physician Craig Spencer had been diagnosed with the disease. When something is endlessly on the screen, to the exclusion everything else going on in the world, it gives the strong impression that we are engulfed in crisis.

Yes, it's a big story. But not one so overarching at this stage that it must monopolize the news.

The coverage also drew criticism from Fox News' Shepherd Smith and Howard Kurtz, NBC's Chuck Todd, MSNBC's Alex Wagner and Chris Hayes, and CNN's Brian Stelter, among others. [USA Today10/27/14Media Matters10/15/14Media Matters10/17/14Media Matters, 10/12/14Media Matters10/16/14Media Matters11/14/14; Media Matters10/26/14]

The System Worked: No Widespread Domestic Ebola Outbreak “The Quiet End To The U.S. Ebola Panic.” reported November 11 that with the release from the hospital of Dr. Craig Spencer, then the last remaining U.S. Ebola patient, Democrats had “seen their electoral prospects take a hit at the most inopportune time over fears that seemed, both now and at the time, irrational.” From the article:

Dr. Craig Spencer, the health worker who brought Ebola from West Africa into the nation's biggest metropolis, is going home on Tuesday, healthy and virus-free. You wouldn't know it from glancing at the cover of either of the two major New York City tabloids, which blared his diagnosis two weeks ago but buried (at least initially) the news of his recovery. And chances are, you may not have heard that Dallas--the epicenter of the Ebola “outbreak” in the U.S.--was cleared of the disease last week, or that Kaci Hickox, the healthy nurse who rose to fame by fighting her state-mandated quarantine, crossed the 21-day monitoring threshold on Monday night without further incident.

The news out of New York brings the grand total of Ebola cases currently in the U.S. back down to zero. For now, the borderline hysteria that began with the arrival, diagnosis, and subsequent death, of Thomas Eric Duncan in Dallas is resembling so many other crises of the moment, in with a bang and out with a whimper. While the U.S. response faltered at the outset, with the misdiagnosis of Duncan and then with inconsistent public-health protocols from federal and state officials, the nation's superior medical care ultimately prevailed: All three Ebola patients whose infections were quickly and properly diagnosed have been cured, and no one with whom they came into contact has reported symptoms.

Democrats were rueful on Tuesday, having seen their electoral prospects take a hit at the most inopportune time over fears that seemed, both now and at the time, irrational. [, 11/11/14]

LA Times: “U.S. Is Now Ebola-Free, And The Panic Is Gone As Well.” The Los Angeles Times likewise reported that with the release of Spencer, “The U.S. was now Ebola-free for the first time since Sept. 5 -- a milestone that barely seemed to register with a once-frenzied public.” [LA Times11/11/14]

Timeline Of U.S. Ebola Events

Timeline Of Ebola Events, October 7 Through November 17. ABC News published the following timeline:

Nov. 17. 2014 - Dr. Martin Salia, a U.S. resident who contracted Ebola while treating patients in Sierra Leone, died of the virus at Nebraska Medical Center. He was the third patient to be treated there and the only one to have died.

Nov. 15, 2014 - Salia, a native of Sierra Leone who lives in the U.S. and is married to a U.S. citizen, arrives at Nebraska Medical Center. He is “extremely ill,” doctors say. His wife has agreed to pay for his trip to the U.S. for treatment.

Nov. 10, 2014 - Salia tests positive for Ebola.

Nov. 6, 2014 - Salia shows Ebola symptoms in Sierra Leone, but initially tests negative for the virus.

Oct. 24, 2014 - Dallas nurse Nina Pham, 26, the first person to contract Ebola in the United States, is virus-free, the National Institutes of Health announces.

Oct. 23, 2014 - Dr. Craig Allen Spencer is diagnosed with Ebola the same day he went into isolation at Bellevue Hospital in Manhattan. According to the hospital, he had a fever and gastrointestinal symptoms when he was taken to Bellevue. Spencer recently returned from Guinea, where he was working with Doctors Without Borders. NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio said at a news conference that Spencer only had symptoms for “a very brief period of time” and only had contact with “very few” people. He described the patient as “in good shape.”

Oct. 22, 2014 - Ebola patient Amber Vinson, 29, a nurse who treated Thomas Eric Duncan, the first person diagnosed with Ebola on American soil, is declared virus-free at Emory University Hospital, where she was transferred after testing positive for the virus at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital, where she works. Her family said she tested negative for the virus and would be moved from isolation.

Oct. 19, 2014 - The unnamed American Ebola patient is discharged from Emory University Hospital, where the patient had been undergoing care since Sept. 9. This patient had been working for the WHO in Sierra Leone and chose to remain anonymous.

Oct. 17, 2014 - Spencer arrives back in the United States via Brussels after spending a month in Guinea with Doctors Without Borders treating Ebola patients. He lands in New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport.

Oct. 17, 2014 - Officials announce that a Dallas health worker who handled clinical specimens from Duncan, the first person diagnosed with Ebola on American soil, is quarantined aboard a Carnival cruise ship amid concerns the worker may have been exposed to the Ebola virus.

Oct. 16, 2014 - Pham is flown from Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas to the National Institutes of Health hospital in Bethesda, Maryland. Pham treated Duncan at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital, where she works.

Oct. 15, 2014 - Vinson is diagnosed with Ebola shortly after midnight and flown to Emory University Hospital that evening.

Oct. 14, 2014 - Vinson is taken to Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas with a fever.

Oct. 13, 2014 - Vinson flies from Cleveland to Dallas on Frontier Airlines Flight 1143, arriving at 8:16 p.m. She has no symptoms, but her temperature was 99.5 degrees that morning, according to health officials. She notified the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention before boarding, and no one told her not to fly.

Oct. 12, 2014 - Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas says that Pham has tested positive for Ebola.

Oct. 12, 2014 - An unidentified Dallas health worker who handled Duncan's clinical specimens at Texas Healthy Presbyterian Hospital boards a cruise ship. The CDC notified the worker about active monitoring after the cruise ship left the country, according to a government statement.

Oct. 10, 2014 - Vinson takes a commercial flight from Dallas to Cleveland, Ohio, to prepare for her upcoming wedding.

Oct. 9, 2014 - A Dallas County sheriff's deputy who reported symptoms associated with Ebola after serving a quarantine order on the apartment where Duncan had been staying tests negative for the virus.

Oct. 8, 2014 - Duncan dies at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital. [ABC News11/17/14]


Media Matters reviewed transcripts in the Nexis database for segments on Ebola between October 7 and November 17, 2014 (in order to give us comparable data before and after the 2014 mid-term elections) on the following evening news programs (5:00 to 11:00 p.m.): ABC's World News Tonight with David Muir; CBS' CBS Evening News with Scott Pelley; NBC's NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams; CNN's The Situation RoomErin Burnett OutfrontAnderson Cooper 360, and CNN Tonight; Fox News' The FiveSpecial Report with Bret BaierOn the Record with Greta Van SusterenThe O'Reilly FactorThe Kelly File, and Hannity; and MSNBC's The Ed ShowPolitics Nation with Al SharptonHardball with Chris MatthewsAll In with Chris HayesThe Rachel Maddow Show, and The Last Word with Lawrence O'Donnell.

We searched for transcripts from those programs for “Ebola” and determined segments based on the following criteria: If the stated topic of discussion was Ebola or if there was “significant discussion” of Ebola. We defined “significant discussion” as at least two speakers discussing Ebola within the segment (e.g., a host asking a question about Ebola to a guest during a multi-topic interview). We did not count teasers, passing mentions, or repeat programs that aired on the same night. We did count news briefs, news packages, news updates, breaking news, multi-guest panels, single-guest interviews, and monologues delivered by the host.

Alexandrea Boguhn and Oliver Willis contributed research to this report. Charts by Oliver Willis.