Is the media ethical during epidemic crises?

by David Zhang on April 7, 2015 - 4:46pm

Is the media ethical during epidemic crises?

The article from natural news is about the risks accompanying the repatriation of an ebola infected individual in the United States. The article uses very little and dubious scientific basis to argue that repatriating infected individuals to treat them brings the risk of an ebola outbreak in America. From a scientific point of view, this idea is pretty much absurd and the whole article is an extreme example of how the media handled the ebola epidemic, and handles disease epidemics in general: by accentuating the sensational aspect of the disease rather than scientific accuracy. This article might not seem to be representative of the behaviour of the media during that crisis, but even in more serious publications such as the Washington Post (see second link) the ebola crisis is dramatized and suggests a threat to the United States. Indeed the first few paragraphs of this second article describe the situation with the drama and the lyrical style of a novel, and contain exaggerated or misleading phrases such as: “the Ebola epidemic has now reached across the Atlantic Ocean” (Washington Post).

These two news articles illustrate an important aspect of the behaviour of the media when dealing with epidemic diseases such as ebola: the news media journalists are often not experts in science and so they either represent the situation inaccurately (from a scientific perspective) or they simply do not provide substantial information about the disease (so the reader ends up not being well informed). As these articles show, the media, by depicting the situation unscientifically, made it seem much more dangerous than it actually was: there was never a significant risk of an ebola outbreak in North America, according to the World Health Organization and other medical experts (Forbes), because the disease is simply not contagious enough. Therefore, the news media caused a sense of threat in the United States where the audience got the impression that the epidemic might reach America.

We are therefore led to the following question: is such media coverage of epidemic crises ethical?

It is hard to deny the idea that such behaviour from the media’s part is unethical from a deontological perspective. Indeed, the media does not report with scientific accuracy the situation, as was the case with the ebola crisis. Therefore, one of the universal maxims of journalism, that of the accuracy of the news, is not respected. Also, the ethicality of the media’s coverage during epidemic crises can be contested on more Kantian grounds: the intent that drives the dramatization of the coverage is simply to draw more attention from the audience and make more money, which is not in the best interest of all (and resembles manipulation).

Now, from a teleological perspective, thus based on the consequences of the media’s behaviour, whether the way the news media cover epidemic crises such as the ebola one (by emphasizing on a few cases in the US and neglecting scientific basis) was ethical or not is an interesting question, because it had both positive and negative effects.

The ultimate goal, or summum bonum, that all ethical actions must somehow lead to, can be said to be happiness (like in utilitarianism). Thus, an ethical behaviour would maximize happiness, which, in the particular case of an epidemic crisis, translates into maximizing health. Hence, whether the effects of the disease are minimized or not becomes the criterion for the evaluation of ethicality from a teleological viewpoint.

On the one hand, the fact that the Americans felt strongly concerned about the possibility of the disease spreading and directly affecting their lives (even if it actually was almost zero) caused them to be much more concerned about the eradication of the disease than they would have been otherwise. Indeed, the exaggeration of the media raised awareness about the situation in Africa and is certainly responsible (at least partially) for the help and intervention of developed countries which, although it was not perfectly efficient, was undoubtedly more useful than harmful. Therefore, it might seem tempting to say that the news media’s behaviour during the ebola crisis was ethical from a teleological perspective.

However, the fact that the media’s depiction of the issue was not scientifically correct did have the negative effect of making the help provided far from optimal. As the two articles that I have talked about show, ebola was generally depicted as much more contagious than it actually was. The sense of threat installed by the news media’s coverage of the issue lead the governments of developed countries toward irrational decisions from a scientific point of view. The best example of a bad decision that was taken as a result of the poor scientific basis of the coverage of the crisis is the travel restriction that was imposed on flights towards and from West Africa. Despite the WHO and most medical experts advising against it, many developed countries such as France and the UK suspended their flights, and the United States opted for strict restrictions on these flights (Dailymail). Such actions (that come as a consequence of the media’s behaviour) were detrimental to the summum bonum, because they restricted the help that could be provided to the severely infected regions of Africa. Isolating the critical regions because of fear of contagion simply increased the risk of ebola spreading in these regions in an uncontrollable way since they do not possess the infrastructure to deal with such diseases, and later in the more developed regions of the world (Forbes).

A coverage less based on speculation could still have been provocative enough to engage the audience and induce intervention while not causing irrational fear leading to non-optimal intervention.

Therefore, the behaviour that many news media channels exhibit during epidemic crises, sacrificing scientific accuracy for the benefit of sensational drama, cannot be said to be ethical, neither from a deontological, nor from a teleological perspective.

 

Articles referred to:

http://www.washingtonpost.com/sf/national/2014/10/04/how-ebola-sped-out-of-control/

http://www.naturalnews.com/046275_Ebola_victim_air_transport_continental_USA.html

 

Works cited:

Adams, Mike. “Infected Ebola patient being flown to Atlanta: Are health authorities risking a U.S outbreak?” Natural News. 1 August 2014. Web. 5 April 2015. URL: http://www.naturalnews.com/046275_Ebola_victim_air_transport_continental_USA.html

Berstein, Lenny. “How Ebola Sped Out of Control.” The Washington Post. 4 October 2014. Web. 5 April 2015. URL: http://www.washingtonpost.com/sf/national/2014/10/04/how-ebola-sped-out-of-control/

Gordon, Sarah. “Air France suspends flights to Ebola-hit Sierra Leone.” The Dailymail. 27 August 2014. Web. 5 April 2015. URL: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/travel/travel_news/article-2735698/Citing-Ebola-Air-France-suspends-flights.html

Walton, Alice. “The Problem With Ebola In The Media.” Forbes. 10 September 2014. Web. 5 April 2015. URL: http://www.forbes.com/sites/alicegwalton/2014/10/11/the-problem-with-ebola-in-the-media/

Comments

Your article is pertinent and interesting and concisely sums up the major ethical issues surrounding the media coverage of epidemics. I completely agree with your statement that the sensational coverage of epidemics is unethical according to both deontological and teleological frameworks.
You should be careful to not confuse causation with correlation. For example, you say that the news media’s exaggeration of health risks in Western countries lead directly to health interventions in Western Africa. Rather, the fact that Ebola patients arrived in the United States both prompted Western countries to develop a vaccine and lead to the news media exaggerating health risks in the developed world. There is a correlation, but not a causation.
The exaggeration of the Ebola epidemic in the news media causes another problem that you haven’t mentioned: by convincing people that the epidemic was about to sweep through North America and Europe, a fact that clearly has not and will not happen, the news media have made themselves less trustworthy. It’s a bit like Peter and the Wolf. If we are constantly being told that an epidemic is about to devastate our continent and nothing ever happens, we will probably all be ignoring the news media by the time a real health crisis occurs in Canada. Therefore, the sensationalist coverage of the Ebola epidemic is unethical from a utilitarian perspective because, by presenting a few cases of the disease in the United States as an epidemic, it reduces trust in the media and this can lead to serious health problems in North America in the future.
I agree with your major points and I believe that the news media have been unethical in their coverage of the Ebola epidemic.

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