There's a fine line between reporting about Ebola and spreading panic

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Marco Werman: I’m Marco Werman and you’re listening to The World. Yesterday, one of our producers went across the street for lunch, and in the 500 hundred feet or so he walked, he encountered 4 separate water cooler conversations about Ebola. Anxiety over the disease is definitely up in this country, which seems disproportionate given that just one case of the disease has been diagnosed in the US so far. A far cry from the thousands of cases in West Africa, which has been dealing with the epidemic for months now. A lot of people would say we, the media, have a lot to do with how Americans react. So, what is the right balance between sharing important information about the disease and avoiding a panic? Helen Branswell is a veteran medical reporter for The Canadian Press, which is Canada’s national news agency. She says Ebola is a disease that strikes a chord with the public and has done so for a long time.


Helen Branswell: It’s been the subject of really scary books and some scary movies, and I think the notion of people bleeding from their eyeballs or other orifices really get people alarmed in a way that the discussion of few pathogens would. But that actually is a very rare incidence in Ebola and doesn’t happen with most cases. I guess the fact that something that everybody said probably would never come here, and by “here,” I mean out of Africa and to Western developed countries and, in particular, to North America, I think it’s understandable that people would become more concerned and pay more attention. I don’t think paying attention is the same thing as panicking, and I don’t think paying attention is an unreasonable thing to do right now. I think this is a story that really requires a fair amount of attention.


Werman: The thing is with Ebola, the disease is presenting some pretty dramatic stories and journalists are hungry for that drama. How would you suggest people step back from the TV headlines, the “cliff’s edge” if you will, and think about Ebola reasonably?


Branswell: The fact is that even if every news outlet that is writing about the Ebola crisis was writing in measured tones and responsibly, the concentration of so much coverage is going to alarm people. It makes the problem seem really big. But people need to focus on the fact that the problem is in West Africa, and that’s where the problem needs to be fixed. We have seen what can happen when that problem goes unchecked -- we had a case in Dallas, which was unfortunate and unsettling for people there, but that was one case and there may not have been any secondary spread from that. The problem is in West Africa and people need to keep that in focus.


Werman: Do you think that part of the alarm in the United States is just that we can get sick from this disease because of a mistake? Like the Spanish nurse’s aide, we found out today, may have caught the disease by touching her face.


Branswell: I think I would stop you there and say we can’t get sick with the disease in North America right now because, with the exception of a very few people who are in very high-containment facilities, Ebola isn’t circulating anywhere. The reality is right now in North America, there is no Ebola for you and I to catch. The only people who have it are in high-containment medical facilities in Nebraska, for instance, or in Spain at the moment. It is really unfortunate that that nurse’s aide caught it and they will certainly want to get to the bottom of how it was their procedures broke down and she became infected, and that’s important to know. But for the general public, we’re not currently at risk.


Werman: I’ve got to say, that’s a really reassuring thing to hear and I’m just wondering why are we not hearing more of that?


Branswell: People like Thomas Frieden, the head of the CDC in the United States and other government officials start out every press conference by saying that the risk to Americans is very low.


Werman: They’re saying that, but every time I glance up at the TV screen and see a cable news network, it’s “Somebody died” or “Some place is getting cleaned out by a biohazard team in Dallas.” You know the headlines.


Branswell: So, if the media is not reminding people that in order to catch something, it has to be there for them to catch, then perhaps we aren’t doing a good enough job.


Werman: Helen Branswell, a veteran medical reporter for The Canadian Press.