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Mainstream Media and the Use of Misleading Headlines to Incite Fear

In many countries, the media can wield considerable power. Mainstream media in Malaysia has found a new degree of journalistic freedom in recent years, though it’s by no means on par with the freedom of the press enjoyed (and perhaps taken for granted) in most Western countries.

In my home country, the American media machine may not control the conversation, but it exerts tremendous influence on it, to the point where it’s not at all ironically referred to as the fourth branch of government. However, as we all know, with such power comes considerable responsibility, the latter of which has been shamelessly abdicated in recent times by my country’s media magnates. For weeks, two things have dominated headlines across the United States: ISIS and Ebola, both overhyped, overdramatized, and oversold, all on a platform of fear and political pandering. It’s disgraceful, and it’s encouraging to see many Americans, in the comments sections of several prominent news sites, calling out the media for their blatant and needless fearmongering.

Now, this is not to say that both of these scourges aren’t serious, nor to suggest that they don’t genuinely merit coverage, but when I see the alarmist headlines, particularly with stories on Ebola now, I just groan. One such headline, printed in bold red capital letters, trumpeted “10,000 NEW CASES AWEEK” – deftly manipulating the actual storyline, which was that the World Health Organization had warned that if nothing was done about the spread of Ebola in West Africa, a worst-case scenario could see up to 10,000 new cases a week in about two months’ time. So the reality of the story, while certainly bad enough, is a far cry from the shocking headline… but hey, fear sells, and nothing generates more fear these days than scary-sounding diseases and terrorism. The twin spectre of Ebola and ISIS confronting the world today is surely a dream come true for sensationalist media types. I’ve rarely seen quite such hysterical headlines like those for Ebola. Consider the West Nile Virus: this mosquito-borne virus, for which no vaccine exists, killed 286 people in the US in 2012, yet there were no frenzied headlines that I can remember. Or the flu: in America alone, 52,000 people died last year from influenza, which unlike Ebola, is an airborne virus. Worldwide, the flu kills between 250,000 and 500,000 people every year. Strains of the flu have indeed been responsible for some of the most deadly contagions in human history, including the 1918-19 catastrophe that circled the globe and wiped out as many as 100 million people. There was a fairly serious worldwide H1N1 flu pandemic in 2009 that killed up to 395,000 people and I don’t recall much front-page media hysteria then, either, though it was certainly in the news. The flu, it seems, simply isn’t exotic enough to sell fear, even if it’s packaged as “swine flu” or “bird flu.”

To date, the current outbreak of Ebola, by far the worst in history, has claimed as many as 4,447 lives, though roughly only half of these have been laboratory confirmed. It’s not an insignificant number, but it pales in comparison to the number of deaths caused every year by the plain old gardenvariety flu. Unlike relatively recent outbreaks of disease such as the bird flu and SARS, this time, Asia is completely off the radar. But I have no doubt that on my upcoming travels, despite Ebola not being an airborne virus and despite it being nowhere near Asia, I’ll still see scores of people wearing those useless little disposable paper masks (that actually keep their germs in rather than keeping those of others out).

In actual fact, outside of the few West African countries where the outbreak is at its worst, the total number of deaths worldwide so far is one. One. And he had come from West Africa, but travelled to the United States, where he died. Now, unfortunately, two hospital workers who had cared for the man when he was most contagious have tested positive for the disease, so of course, there’s no way the media was going to let this opportunity pass them by. Rather than reporting that a breach of biosafety protocol enabled the transmission of the disease from the victim to two people, now quarantined, we get headlines like “UP TO 70 EXPOSED!” simply because that’s the number of people who were working in proximity to the victim. Ebola requires direct human contact with infected fluids or tissue to be transmitted, so this was an irresponsible headline at best, naked fearmongering masquerading as journalism at worst.

Now, there is an upside to the reckless headlines, and that is a public demand for action. There can be no doubt that this is a very serious situation. According to the UN, a coordinated global response is required to contain this outbreak and the WHO has called the ongoing spread of Ebola in West Africa “the most severe acute public health emergency seen in modern times,” so there can be no argument that media coverage is both warranted and necessary. But some in Western media too often cross the line between responsible journalism and lurid sensationalism. I can only hope that as Malaysian reporters grow accustomed to the gradual increase in freedoms being afforded media here, they’ll strive to emulate the best practices of journalism that we’ve seen in other countries, and reject the sensationalist fear-based hack journalism tactics that do little to elevate the profession.

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Source: The Expat Magazine November 2014

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