Ebola News Coverage Reaches Saturation Point

You know a story is reaching its saturation point when the coverage of the story becomes the story.

That has been the case lately with the Ebola story. The quality and quantity of the coverage of this disease is being discussed all over the place -- adding to the quantity of coverage, but not necessarily enhancing the quality of it.

Let’s break it down. At the center of this story is a word -- “ebola” -- that almost everyone has heard of by now, but almost no one fully understands. This lack of understanding has some people criticizing the media for not explaining the science of this disease effectively.

You could watch or read a mountain of stories on Ebola and not be certain if you can catch it from a guy sitting three rows behind you on a plane who has the disease and sneezes during your flight.

I’ve watched reports on TV in which experts insist this disease can spread through the air, while other experts avow that that’s not true -- that you have to come into contact with a sick person’s bodily fluids such as sweat, saliva and presumably blood to contract the disease.  

Which is it? Who knows? You can see how medical personnel who have gotten the disease might have come into contact with these fluids, especially if they weren’t wearing proper hazmat gear. But what about the NBC cameraman who contracted the disease while covering the story in Africa? How did a guy wielding a camera come into contact with an Ebola patient’s bodily fluids? Perhaps he didn’t, but caught the disease just by being around these patients.

And why did he get the disease, while NBC’s medical correspondent, Nancy Snyderman, did not? She is not reported to be ill, but she is in hot water for not quarantining herself and might lose her job.

So the science of the disease is not well-understood by most of us -- and possibly isn’t even understood by experts. But the scientific or medical angle is just one of the angles from which this story is being covered. One other angle is the political one being taken up chiefly by the cable news channels because we are closing in on the important mid-term elections.

The stories generally concern how candidates -- particularly Republican ones -- are using the Ebola “crisis” to bludgeon the Obama administration and, by extension, incumbent Democrats in the House and Senate for neglect or incompetence in their response to this disease.

Thus, you have Fox News Channel on the right banging the drum for Republicans who have taken up the Ebola cudgel, and MSNBC on the left adopting a “how dare they” attitude about Republicans who have made this health issue into a central issue of their political campaigns. Meanwhile, for middle-of-the-road CNN, the Ebola story has moved to the top of the news list, where it is grabbing the lion’s share of CNN airtime (and helping to spur the discussion decrying the “saturation” coverage of this story).

Meanwhile, the number of people in the U.S. who have actually had this disease can be counted on one hand. Without meaning to diminish or underplay the tragedy of one patient’s death from the disease here (compared with thousands who have died in Africa), you might actually come to the conclusion that something the authorities are doing here in the United States might actually be working, even if these very same authorities can’t seem to explain adequately what they’re doing.

Where the “journalism” of the Ebola epidemic is concerned, the problem might be geographic. The fact is that Ground Zero for this Ebola story is in the African countries where it is wreaking the most havoc. But news producers here in the U.S. believe, rightly or wrongly, that this story won’t resonate with -- or more to the point, attract -- sufficient numbers of viewers unless it is relatable to their own lives. Thus, you get a lot of overheated coverage of the tiny handful of cases that have turned up here, and comparatively few stories on the suffering over there. Or so it seems.

This question of coverage-saturation comes up every time there is an ongoing story of any kind. And I have adopted a standard response: Our news media can hardly be expected to ignore this story. And you can hardly expect some news channels (or, for that matter, newspapers or Web sites) to start dialing down their coverage as long as everyone else continues to cover it.

That’s not how the world works, or how the news business works. To those news consumers who say they’re still confused by the nature of this disease despite the wall-to-wall coverage of this story, then I can only say that that is the nature of the beast -- lots of noise but very little understanding.

5 comments about "Ebola News Coverage Reaches Saturation Point".
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  1. Scott Gilbert from The Radio Mall, October 21, 2014 at 1:37 p.m.

    I can only speak about the coverage I've seen in Houston, TX, and it seems like the stations, especially KPRC, are more interested in scaring people than giving them facts and reassurance. You would think, from their reporting, that it was running rampant in Texas, rather than the truth which is: Two people have ebola, and are being treated for it. YOU are safe.

  2. Nicholas Schiavone from Nicholas P. Schiavone, LLC, October 21, 2014 at 2:55 p.m.

    Perhaps journalists would benefit from reading the Hippocratic Oath and attune their coverage to the reality of the situation.
    It is so odd and counterproductive that we obsess over ebola, but ignore the problems where the answers and cures exist.
    Think, for example, about sun exposure. The use of sun screen products would markedly reduce the number of skin cancer cases.
    Yet, we sun -- and tan -- ourselves all too often without a second thought. The NYT's Frank Bruni has written especially well on this.

    Hippocratic Oath (Modern version)

    "I swear to fulfill, to the best of my ability and judgment, this covenant:

    I will respect the hard-won scientific gains of those physicians in whose steps I walk, and gladly share such knowledge as is mine with those who are to follow.

    I will apply, for the benefit of the sick, all measures which are required, avoiding those twin traps of overtreatment and therapeutic nihilism.

    I will remember that there is art to medicine as well as science, and that warmth, sympathy, and understanding may outweigh the surgeon's knife or the chemist's drug.

    I will not be ashamed to say "I know not," nor will I fail to call in my colleagues when the skills of another are needed for a patient's recovery.

    I will respect the privacy of my patients, for their problems are not disclosed to me that the world may know. Most especially must I tread with care in matters of life and death. If it is given me to save a life, all thanks. But it may also be within my power to take a life; this awesome responsibility must be faced with great humbleness and awareness of my own frailty. Above all, I must not play at God.

    I will remember that I do not treat a fever chart, a cancerous growth, but a sick human being, whose illness may affect the person's family and economic stability. My responsibility includes these related problems, if I am to care adequately for the sick.

    I will prevent disease whenever I can, for prevention is preferable to cure.

    I will remember that I remain a member of society, with special obligations to all my fellow human beings, those sound of mind and body as well as the infirm.

    If I do not violate this oath, may I enjoy life and art, respected while I live and remembered with affection thereafter. May I always act so as to preserve the finest traditions of my calling and may I long experience the joy of healing those who seek my help."

    Written in 1964 by Louis Lasagna, Academic Dean of the School of Medicine at Tufts University, and used in many medical schools today.

  3. Nicholas Schiavone from Nicholas P. Schiavone, LLC, October 21, 2014 at 3:11 p.m.

    Please don't forget to talk to your primary care physician (PCP) about the importance of getting a flue shot -- soon.

    This is an example of a serious medical issue that we know something about AND can do something about.

    Most of us should "THINK FLU" -- NOT "Think Ebola."

  4. Stephen Mindich from phoenix media group, October 21, 2014 at 8:06 p.m.

    to the above - well said and thank you ... last year some 23,000 people in this country died of the flu - far more than those who have died in Africa from Ebola ... and the one Ebola death here ...
    now to the articles subject - there is no more real science that supports the argument that Ebola is an air born disease than there is to support that climate change, enhanced by human behavior, is not a serious threat to the earth ... and if people have any doubt, then they have not watched, listened to, or read any legitimate news source - how the cameraman caught Ebola is simply unknown and raising it as a legitimate question or concern is a red-herring worthy only of National Inquirer-like media ... how do we know that to be a fact is because Ebola has been around for millennia and its never been transmitted through the air ... unfortunately the media has way overplayed this story - because it has every element to attract audiences - and fear is at the top of the list - a fear, by the way - that they primarily promulgated ... Mr. Buckman has been too kind to the media in justifying/rationalizing their overkill for the sake of ratings/eyeballs.

  5. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, November 16, 2014 at 10:51 p.m.

    It's really hard to talk about the science of disease to people who do not believe in science. For those who do not believe in science, they should never receive any type of medical help including eyeglasses. Let them do the hokey pokey or something next time they sneeze for their cure.

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