Media Baiting: Public Health

“Ebola in the Air? A Nightmare that Could Happen,” “Don’t Let a Hospital Kill You,” “Medical Studies that Show Vaccines Can Cause Autism.” Titles like these have become commonplace in American news headlines. Broadcast news has found a market in perpetuating fear at the cost of the public’s peace of mind and the resources of the public health workforce. These “scare for ratings” headlines have become a focal point in almost every media outlet, forcing health care workers to somehow manage the medical issues at hand while trying to contain public hysteria brought forth by national news.

At an Ebola seminar at the University of California Irvine, Dr. George Woods Jr. spoke of the growing panic brought forth by the media as a “delusion of diseases.” He stated that the media has found a niche in frightening their audience and referring to it as news, and this fear has stopped the public’s critical thinking. The general public has become a herd following their manipulating media shepherd. With no reason to doubt the news, Americans have found themselves preparing for doomsday on issues that are, ironically, not detrimental to their everyday lives. The headline, “Ebola in the Air? A Nightmare that Could Happen,” by CNN’s senior medical correspondent, Elizabeth Cohen, claimed a potential for Ebola to go airborne, however within the same article she disclosed airborne transmission was “speculation, unsubstantiated by any evidence.” Ridiculous as they seem, headlines like Cohen’s have created reactionary advocates from the Ebola virus for airline closures, quarantines that violate human rights, and the fear of anyone with the sniffles. News broadcasters, in the midst of their speculation on theoretical virus mutations, crucially forgot to mention that Ebola is not contagious until victims show symptoms of the disease. Ebola can only be passed from contact with bodily fluids of a contagious individual. These reactions leave public health workers to try and handle current Ebola cases, but also to  calm a hysterical population fueled by misinformation. The Ebola crisis, however, is not the only public health emergency the media has left public health workers to mediate.

Over the course of the past few years, the American media has found a way to withhold the detriments of avoiding vaccinations against highly contagious diseases. The Americas reached success with regional elimination of the measles virus since 2002 and since there is an effective vaccine for measles, the progress of elimination should have been consistent. Despite this, measles cases have increased reaching a high of 610 cases in 2013, the most since 2000. The CDC has linked many of the new cases of measles with a reluctance of parents wanting to vaccinate their children and, unsurprisingly, the media has played a prominent role with these parents unwillingness. Media personalities such as

Jenny McCarthy, a former co-host of the talk show The View, advocated against the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine, stating that the vaccination had caused her son to have autism. A vaccination cannot cause autism, but McCarthy’s personal turmoil acted as a catalyst for the anti-vaccination movement. Broadcasters invited doctors who expressed the “threats” of vaccines – threats the CDC referred to as one in a million.  Headlines now read: “Disneyland Behind Measles Outbreak in OC,” when they should actually read “Parents Against Vaccinations Behind Every American Measles Outbreaks.” This mentality of picking a polarizing side, no matter how fictitious has not only led parents to be scared of life-saving advancements, and put children in harms way.

The media’s control over public perception has prompted rash decision-making by citizens as personal claims and speculation become transformed into news.

The Ebola “epidemic” in the U.S. has caused health care workers who wished to help with efforts in West Africa reconsider in fear that they may be stigmatized upon their return. Of the twenty newly reported cases of measles within the last month, it was noted that fifteen were caused by lack of vaccinations. The idea of turning fear into viewers has spurred a scare-off amongst media outlets turning broadcast news into a countdown to the apocalypse. Public health workers are then left struggling to work with the public’s hysteria, containment of the current outbreak, and the constant efforts to prevent future outbreaks. When we turn on the evening news we might as well be asking “what’s going to kill me today”?

Soham Bhatt is a fourth-year public health policy major. He can be reached at skbhatt@uci.edu