One of the people closest to me in my life gave me something a couple of years ago that makes me laugh every time I come across it in my kitchen. It’s a standard white coffee mug that features a simple design he probably put together at Cafe Press: the profile of a shark, with the words “Never Forget” stamped above it, and a date, “August, 2001,” below.
If you were in the news business back in August of 2001 or you’re somebody who makes it a point to follow the press’s fleeting fascinations you might get the joke. It’s a reference to “The Summer of the Shark,” a news media-perpetuated meme spawned by what seemed like a sudden rise in the number of shark attacks along the country’s coasts. The reality, of course, was that there were no more shark attacks in the summer of 2001 than there were at any other time, there were simply more attacks being reported and once they sensed a trend, the media overplayed even the tiniest encounter between man and fish in the name of generating hype which generated revenue.
The gag gift was meant as a clever reminder to me that just one month before the national press was doing the important work of covering one of the biggest stories in American history, it was trying to scare everyone into thinking they were about to be eaten by sharks.
The inclination toward pushing conflict and panic is the one real bias the news media have; it’s something much more influential than any specific political leaning on its own because a scared audience is one that keeps watching. If you have a story that self-generates viewers or readers by implying that they have to stay tuned or keep reading because their very lives may depend on it, that’s a story you want to run and continue running. This is why assuming and contemplating the worst-case scenario is what news outlets can always be counted on to do.
Maybe I’m throwing this out there as a warning to keep in mind as the coverage of the Ebola crisis in Africa begins to ramp up. It isn’t to say that Ebola’s not a very serious issue, only to remind you that because it’s a very serious issue that’s tragically affecting hundreds of people in one part of the world and certain developments have made it clear that it can easily spread, it’s probably not a good idea for people oceans away to worry just yet. The CDC is reminding us that it’s true Ebola can spread anywhere on the globe thanks to transcontinental air travel, but right now it’s not as if Americans should be running out trying to buy biohazard level-four suits for themselves and their families.
The facts are indeed concerning. Three countries in Africa are now part of the worst outbreak of Ebola in history, with at least 1,200 people infected, more than half of whom are now dead. An infected man recently managed to board a plane and hit four separate African countries before dying.Americans are among the infected and just today it was announced that Sierra Leone’s top doctor fighting the disease died from it. Ebola is one of the most terrifying viruses on the planet, often causing those infected with it to crash and bleed out within ten days; it kills between 50 and 90-percent of those who contract it. In other words, it’s the absolute last thing you want to arrive on a plane in the United States.
But while the CDC has put doctors here in the U.S. on alert, it’s trying to be as reassuring as possible about the chances of any kind of outbreak here. The fact is that because of the international awareness about the outbreak, physicians and researchers are keenly aware of what to look for and could likely isolate any stray patient who might make it to an area outside of the current hot zone. Granted this is little consolation to those living where Ebola is running rampant and their lives are as important as anyone else’s, but the worldwide spread of a disease like Ebola is of critical importance.
Raising awareness, however, is different from instilling outright fear. And all it takes is one or two specific language tweaks on the part of the news media to turn a comprehensive, level-headed report on the Ebola outbreak into naked alarmism. NBC News is already saying that “yes, it could come here,” while USA Today reminds us all that the stuff of our nightmares is “only a plane ride away from the USA” (complete with a Hollywood-ready map dotted with red concentric circles showing where the infection points are). All this is true, of course, but it’s still a good idea to consider the facts about the current outbreak in totality before turning your water cooler talk into lengthy discussions about how to best self-contain the ventilation in your panic room.
Make no mistake: an actual outbreak of Ebola within the country or around the globe would have the potential to be devastating to humanity and it’s good that people are finally paying attention to a danger that many in Africa have been living under for decades. Unlike the Summer of the Shark, the threat here is real and has already taken a massive toll. Maybe that’s why the media in the U.S. and across the West have more of a responsibility than ever to present the facts without any unnecessary hype or alarmism — and we as the audience have a responsibility to ignore any hype and concentrate solely on the facts.