Bioethics Blogs

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 views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.