Nobody Likes An Existential Threat, Except The Media Industry

"Why don't they know?” the agitated man sitting next to me on the R train blurted.

At first, I thought he was speaking to me, but I realized he was talking to a couple sitting across the subway car from us, whom he clearly knew and was traveling with. But in a way he was also speaking to anyone who would listen to him. You could see it in his body language; he could barely contain himself.

While it’s not unusual for people to blurt things at you on New York subway cars, this outburst was different. Other than his body language and the way he was speaking, he seemed like a pretty normal guy. A middle-aged man dressed in a tweed jacket, button-down shirt and khaki slacks, I would have taken him for a college professor.



He was literally sitting on his hands, leaning forward and up, like he was about to spring into action.

“Why don't they know?” he repeated to his companions. “Why don’t they know how Ebola is spread?”

He continued -- ticking off a jumble of Ebola headlines -- the New Jersey nurse who threatened to sue over her forced quarantine, how federal and state officials were announcing new plans to contain an outbreak -- but his main focus was on a single question: Why were trained medical professionals -- nurses and a doctor -- contracting Ebola, when “they” were telling us it's not that contagious. By “they,” of course, I assumed he meant the media.

We pulled into the 8th Street / New York University station, and the man and his companions exited the train. I could hear two women speaking Spanish on the other side of me. I couldn't translate what they were saying, but every few words was punctuated with one I knew -- “Ebola.”

Media In The Time Of Ebola

It's one thing for Hollywood to tackle existential threats for entertainment value. That can actually be helpful for processing feelings that are so deeply wired inside of us that they can make us seem irrational at times, but at other times are linked to our survival. If nothing else, entertainment media can provide a release -- helping us to confront deep-rooted fears in a way we can internalize and socialize. It’s why I love AMC’s “The Walking Dead,” because it deals with those fundamental themes, including what would happen if normal people -- people like you and me and that guy sitting next to me on the subway yesterday -- were suddenly thrown into an apocalyptic scenario. How would that play out? What would we do? How would we change?

When Hollywood does it right, that’s what it does best. And it’s why we love going to the pictures. Whether they were pictures illuminated by fire on a cave-painted wall, or the ones flickering on silver or digital screens, it’s how human beings have processed our most fundamental threats, shared information about them, learned to get a grip and hopefully get smart enough to overcome them. It is why we are here, and how media helped us to get here. And hopefully, where we go next.

The other side of the media industry -- the news media -- not so much. Instead of helping us confront the unthinkable, news outlets (and increasingly, social media) do just the opposite. They play off our base wiring to trigger emotions to read a story. Don’t get me wrong, that is a very human thing too. Heck, I should know. It’s what I do for a living. It's why I’m writing what I am right now, because the best way to engage people with information they otherwise might not want to consider is to show how other people engage with it. Neuroscientists say it's because it triggers the “mirror neurons” in our brains that enable people to relate to things that other people relate to.

When people do that -- whether they are journalists, moviemakers or cave painters -- they enable us to connect with other people so that we can care, feel, think and behave some way because of that.

In my opinion, that's why people use media. It's why I've always wanted to be a part of it. It's why I'm writing this to you right now. Because I want to influence how you feel, think and behave. And right now, the thing I want to influence is how you feel, think and behave about the way the news media covers Ebola. I want to do that because in some small way, I might be able to influence it for the better -- in a way that leverages media to make us better. In this case, to make us better at dealing with existential threats -- whether they are Ebola, or whatever comes next. Because you do know that human beings will face them. We always have. And, I hope, we always will.

To do that we're going to need the help of the media industry. Not just the cathartic power of Hollywood escapism, but the power of an informative press.

This is the part where you'd think I'd get up on my high horse and start critiquing what the news media has done wrong. It's not. We all already know what that is -- and to be frank, I don't expect it to go away, because dysfunction is also a very human condition. What I want to focus on is how news media can do a better job of helping us function. Because I believe the smartest humans will gravitate toward that information. Just like our ancestors did before us.

I don't have all the answers. I'm asking the same basic questions the guy on the R train was asking yesterday. What I do know is that I'm not getting any answers. I mean, about some really basic stuff.

For example, public health officials have told us -- through the media -- that Ebola isn't really that contagious. That people have to be symptomatic to transmit it, and that it can only be transmitted by direct contact between the transmitter’s bodily fluids and the receiver’s soft body tissue.

So one of my big questions is, exactly what bodily fluids -- all of them? -- and how soft a bodily tissue? I haven't been able to find the answers to that through the media, so I asked my nephew who is a doctor in a major New York City hospital. He said he didn’t know.

I asked him if (vulgar alert) it included urine, and if someone were to flush a urinal in a public men’s room after an Ebola sufferer used it, would they atomize those bodily fluids into the air to come into the contact with the soft tissues in their nose and mouth. He said he did not know, but that he’s been told it is not something that could be transmitted by breathing.

“But what if someone coughs or sneezes at you? There's more coming out of them than breath,” he said. And he should know, because he's an anesthesiologist who is an expert on people's breathing.

My nephew said he has received new protocols from his hospital’s administrators on how to deal with various patients suffering from Ebola, including delivering a baby from a pregnant woman. While it's unlikely that an Ebola patient would come to term, he said, the hospital’s policy is to deliver the baby, even if it's by C-section, which he assured would most likely contaminate everyone in that delivery room by potentially exposing bodily fluids to soft tissues. He said he has not been trained on how to perform his tasks with protective gear like hazmat suits that would reduce that scenario, which explains what happened in that hospital in Dallas. But this is weeks later in New York City, and someone potentially on the front line for battling Ebola doesn't actually know the answers to these questions.

The real answer should be that we simply don't know. We've never had a pandemic like it in the modern industrial world. Sure, I know the other comforting media sound bite is that more people die from the flu every year than die from Ebola, but that’s because more people have been exposed to the flu.

What the news media -- and the public officials who use it to communicate and educate -- could be doing is informing the public on how to deal with that uncertainty. I understand the risks of enflaming public panic unnecessarily, but that's already going on. What the news media could do is help us come to grips with what we do and don't know. It's what news media do best when they work with the facts, and help promote protocols that help the public avoid a threat. You know -- “See something, say something.”

I don’t know enough to recommend what that should be, but I do know the public is hungry for information, and that the amazing thing about human beings is that if you give them honest, truthful, information that can help with their survival, they will almost always do it. At least enough of us will do it, to make sure there are enough of us around to tell the next group that comes along.

It's how we got here, and the role that media has played in getting us here. And it is how we will get where we go next.

There are many analogies I could make between Ebola and media. Like infectious diseases, the media industry studies and applies the science of epidemiology. We even call something “viral” -- usually in a good way -- when it infects a large cross-section of the public.

A few years ago, when Jon Mandel was running a unit of Nielsen, he spoke at a MediaPost event and explained how Nielsen was selling data from its consumer purchasing division to the U.S. government to help combat the war on terror. The data was information Nielsen had on the consumption of certain prescription drugs known for treating outbreaks of diseases like anthrax that could be released as part of a biological attack. If Cipro sales spike in a region of the country, he said, it could be an early signal for the government to investigate or take action on.

Google Health has similar disease state tracking tools. And we have seen in recent years how even Twitter tweets could be used to plot the advance of an earthquake down the Eastern Seaboard.

So when I think about why my subway mate was so manic yesterday, I don't think it's because of what the news media was telling him, so much as the fact that -- in this day and age of infinite information wisdom and ubiquitous immediate access --  we don't actually know what's going on.

Let's figure it out while we still can. And let's use media to help with -- not hinder -- that.

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