Framing the Ebola epidemic

“CDC estimates Ebola epidemic could be over in Liberia and Sierra Leone by January!”

So ran the headline of exactly no news outlets.  Instead, a typical headline ran the following sort of dire prediction: “Ebola cases could reach 1.4 million within four months, CDC estimates.”  Only a few went with what is arguably the fairest sort of headline: “CDC offers sharply differing forecasts for Ebola epidemic.”  I would suggest that, while on its face the more dire headline is somewhat deceptive and driven by bad journalistic practices, it is all things considered preferable to the alternatives.  

The first two headlines are reasonable, if incomplete, summaries of findings from a recent CDC report projecting the likely trajectory of the Ebola outbreak in Liberia and Sierra Leone.  Based on trends from August 31, the CDC produced two estimates: one based on what would happen if the conditions from August 31 continue indefinitely (1.4 million cases), and another based on what would happen if treatment and quarantine measures were effectively propagated (the epidemic ends). It is important to note (as some of the news articles do) that these measures have been ramped up since the CDC’s data was gathered a month ago, so the worst-case scenario is not clearly a ‘status quo’ estimate any longer.  Emphasizing only the worst-case scenario is deceptive because it obscures the central nuance of the CDC’s report, giving the impression not that 1.4 million *might* contract Ebola, but that 1.4 million *will*.

So, why do news outlets typically choose to emphasize the sensational worst-case scenario?  The obvious answer is that people are more likely to read the article.  1.4 million cases is alarming (especially given that most cases will result in death), something that will get people’s attention and generate clicks.  Noting the possibility that the epidemic may end is boring, as is the fact that a government report contains nuance.  This general preference for sensational reporting may be good business, but it is not generally in the public’s interest.  By picking only the most extreme aspect of an estimate, journalists (or their editors who write the headlines, though I consider them to be journalists as well) risk distorting public perceptions; the ‘worst-case scenario’ becomes the most likely scenario in people’s eyes.  This could lead to overinvestment in addressing the issue, to the detriment of more efficient ways to spend the resources, or an unfairly negative perception of a given policy.

The Ebola epidemic, though, does not seem to be at risk of overinvestment.  If anything, wealthy countries appear too anodyne about the crisis; resources are trickling in, but not enough to bring the CDC’s best-case scenario about.  The dire headline, then, might serve as a self-defeating prophecy:  it is a prediction whose fulfilment becomes less likely the more people believe it.  Fear of a massive epidemic spreading across the globe may be a powerful motivator to free up the resources needed to set up treatment and quarantine facilities.

A conscientious constructor of headlines is then faced with a dilemma.  On the one hand, the neutral headline is the most accurate representation of the CDC’s report (and not so different from the CDC report’s own title: “Estimating the Future Number of Cases in the Ebola Epidemic – Liberia and Sierra Leone, 2014-2015).  This is in line with journalists’ obligations to provide headlines that accurately represent the content of the story (and, in turn, reality).  On the other hand, the sensationalist headline not only secures revenue (ensuring the news outlet can stay in business to continue informing the public of important matters) but also arguably will have good public health outcomes: greater investment in combating the Ebola epidemic.  Ironically, that good public health outcome would make the headline even more inaccurate, as fewer would contract Ebola.  There is a tension here between the journalist’s obligation to be accurate and her obligation to generate attention and benefit the public.

As a general rule, accuracy is probably preferable.  Allowing public benefit to justify deceptive journalism very quickly slides into distortions based on the political leaning. Thus, we have the bifurcated media of Fox News and the Huffington Post – people read outlets that confirm their own biases, becoming further entrenched in partisan views when objective reporting might legitimately put pressure on those views. (See here for my slightly more lengthy critique of partisan journalism)

But the evil of Ebola is not a politically controversial issue. Everyone can agree it is a disease that must be stopped (even if they do not agree on the resources to be spent). This is not to say that the deception itself is justified – indeed, I doubt many picked the sensational headline out of concern for public interest, rather than to simply attract readers.  Nevertheless, it is a desirable outcome.  Currently, Westerners are insufficiently attentive to the suffering caused by the epidemic; that is, they currently have an inaccurate appreciation of how bad the situation is and are thus unwilling to spend the necessary resources to combat it.  The sensationalist headline is a corrective, one that – through its extremity – can bring people closer to a proper appreciation of the direness of the situation and provide further motivation to help stop the epidemic.

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7 Responses to Framing the Ebola epidemic

  • Pete says:

    “But the evil of Ebola”

    I don’t understand how a strand of RNA can be described as evil. A virus is not even a living organism, how can it carry any moral attributes? To be correct, the usage of the attributes of good or evil should only be used to describe an intent, an act, or a thought which is brought forth by a conscious being capable of moral discernement.

    “The evil of Ebola” is a dramatic and impossible statement. I understand the need to “rally the troops”, and the need to awaken a spirit of community to fight this virus, but why use such impossibe language?

    • Owen Schaefer says:

      I suppose to a certain extent I was speaking metaphorically of Ebola as evil. Still, strictly speaking, ‘evil’ can be attached to non-agential entities in the English language. So, for instance, Merriam-Webster has as its second definition of evil “causing harm or injury to someone” (; an example sentence refers to ‘evil days’. And, it is beyond doubt that Ebola causes harm.

      • Pete says:

        I stand corrected

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  • Anders Sandberg says:

    There is also the problem with skew statistical distributions (I know, I know, it is my personal hobby-horse…): most probably, the epidemic will be “small”, but there is a enough probability of a large one – and large can mean ten or a hundred times more than a “small”, rather than small plus a bit more.

    This kind of behavior is tough to explain well: it is likely that if things goes well there will be far more response than is apparently warranted. This is also the more likely outcome, and will lead to later recriminations that resources were wasted (consider the standard flu pandemic). If things are bad, then the long tail property of the risk means that things will be overwhelmingly bad. Then there will be recriminations about not doing enough. Of course, to some extent we are already in the worse than expected region, but policies will be judged with how they deal with the current state, not the initial state of half a year ago (one can make an analogy with the IS situation).

    So sensationalism can help fix a problem or even bring the excessive resources to bear that are necessary when things get out of hand, but it is likely it will cause a backlash afterwards. Maybe that is morally OK: fixing an evil is more important than having arguments afterwards. But if one can foresee that those arguments potentially weaken future responses (which I think some of the swine flu recriminations did) then it might still not be worth it.

    • Marcos says:

      This might be called One Writer’s Confessions about What’s Trend. That’s seems that the wteirr have passed most of the time investigating if this is practically true or not.

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