Predictably, Facebook blew up today when news broke that the Knox County Health Department is keeping tabs on someone who recently returned from West Africa.
It’s just human nature to share that story with your Facebook friends, because Ebola is a subject that currently interests a lot of us. It’s in the news every day, it’s talked about in coffee shops and gathering places wherever you go.
But the interesting part was the fear and paranoia that accompanied some of those Facebook shares. More than once, I saw Facebook users proclaim that Ebola has finally hit close to home in East Tennessee. Or some variation of, “OMG! Please tell me this isn’t true!!”
There was nothing wrong with the stories from the Knoxville media outlets; they were pretty mundane and on-point with the story. (I will add that I liked the fact WBIR’s story was headlined, “#FactsNotFear: No Ebola in Tennessee.” Unfortunately, the WBIR story isn’t the one getting a lot of play on Facebook.
There may have been no story in the last 10 years that has been over-sensationalized as much in America as this Ebola outbreak — primarily because there are plenty of muckrakers out there with nothing to do but sensationalize it (I’m looking at you, Matt Drudge). I’m convinced there are two factors that drive sensationalism, not just on this story but many others: 1.) The internet’s seemingly endless number of “news” websites and blogs that can push hyperbolic stories, and 2.) Our short attention spans.
In this case, it wasn’t hyperbole on the part of the reporters; as I said, the stories from the Knoxville media outlets were pretty innocuous. But our short attention spans may have something to do with it.
Never in the recorded history of mankind have attention spans been shorter as in our society today. Earlier today, someone who shared a fraudulent story about Ebola in Tennessee later admitted that he didn’t read the story; he just saw the headline and posted it. That actually happens quite often. As technology conditions our short attention spans (there’s a reason Twitter is mega-popular and limits speakers to 140 or fewer characters), we tend to skim over stories if we read them at all. Any college-level journalism course today will teach its students to write for what is often termed “the internet.” Basically, you don’t write in big blocks. You use subheads to break stories into short, choppy pieces.
So when you see stories headlined like WATE’s — “Knox County Health Department monitoring person for possible signs of Ebola” — is it any wonder some people skim the headline and automatically assume the worst?
There’s nothing wrong with WATE’s headline; I used it as an example. If you read the story, it’s impossible to come away with the belief that someone in East Tennessee has Ebola. But it’s easy to see how someone could just glance at that headline and interpret it to mean that the Knox County Health Department is monitoring someone who is displaying symptoms similar to Ebola symptoms.
The truth, of course, is that Ebola isn’t in East Tennessee. Instead, the Knox County Health Department is merely following federal guidelines requiring all health departments across the nation to monitor anyone returning from West Africa for a 21-day period. And by “monitoring,” the KCHD will check in with that person once daily. That person will take his or her temperature twice a day, and if a fever presents itself, KCHD will be notified.
Truthfully, the news headlines could just as easily and accurately read, “Local resident returns to Knox County after trip to West Africa.” This person is displaying no symptoms of Ebola and I’ve seen no report indicating that he or she even had contact with Ebola victims in West Africa.
The overlying message, meanwhile, is that Ebola remains a minuscule threat to Americans. As I said in the beginning, it would be virtually impossible for a non-airborne virus to become a pandemic in the United States, given our advanced medical technology and the protocols that are in place. I don’t claim to be an expert on Ebola or any medical subject, but I will defer to the many experts who have said the exact same thing. Ebola doesn’t transmit like the flu or the common cold; it requires contact with bodily fluids, very similar to the common stomach virus . . . and it’s actually harder to transmit than the stomach virus and similar viruses.
That truth remains despite the hyperbolic and overblown reporting from some less than credible news sources over the past few weeks, reports that have claimed (erroneously) that CDC fears Ebola is transmissible by air and more recent reports claiming that Ebola could become airborne in colder climates outside Africa (read: North America, which is headed into its winter season).
There’s a reason that only one person has died from Ebola in the United States. There’s a reason that, with the two Texas nurses on the mend, only one person (the New York doctor who returned from Africa) in the U.S. currently has Ebola. There’s a reason that none of the dozens of people who had contact with Texas patient or the two nurses who treated him and later became infected themselves have shown signs of illness. If Ebola were airborne, it’s almost a certainty that someone associated with the Texas patient would have gotten sick. None did.
As thousands of people continue to fall victim to Ebola in Africa, the virus is continually being given new hosts in which it can mutate and strengthen. As that happens, medical experts say there is an extremely small chance that it could become airborne in humans. Not that it’s ever happened before; just that it can’t be ruled out. So clearly the modernized world — including the U.S. — should be doing more to combat Ebola in Africa. We owe it to ourselves, but we also owe it to the citizens of the nations there that lack the resources to combat this on their own. We should also be doing more to make sure that Ebola isn’t carried back to our shores by either suspecting or unsuspecting carriers.
But panic and hyperbole solves nothing, except to feed the paranoia that is deeply rooted in our very nature. Nothing good comes from that.