First US Ebola case – how’s the media doing so far?

Ebola shifted from a running story to red-alert breaking news yesterday, as the first diagnosis was made in the US – and in Dallas, my home. As a local, a journalist and a researcher on misinformation, I’ve had many reasons to follow the developing news closely.

So far I’ve detected few howlers. The local broadcasters, newspapers and their online operations have pretty much stuck to the information officials have given them. While in many cases we might decry journalists “toeing the official line,” in the case of a rapidly evolving health story that official information becomes much more important. Few journalists are in the position to question the CDC’s scientific advisories, and speculating about the questions that agencies have refused to answer could lead to a host of undesirable outcomes – from misinforming the public and causing panic, to ethical violations against the patient and his family, to just plain appearing foolish.

As usual, if you want to see abhorrent misinformation, you can turn to Alex Jones’ Infowars – though I don’t really recommend it. Among the examples of responsible service journalism exhibited there today is the assertion, “The Ebola infection is contagious during the incubation period. This, however, is disputed by the World Health Organization.” Interesting epistemological approach there: basically, “we have the facts, and we won’t spell out the source, although we’ll link to eMed.tv. WHO seems to disagree with the authority that is eMed, so I guess we’ll mention that.”

We can also count on Glenn Beck to go where others won’t, although his sins are more in the realm of silly conjecture than actual misinformation about the facts. Beck used the opportunity to compare the unnamed Ebola patient with Typhoid Mary, and this leads to the inevitable conclusion that the government’s preparing to “fence people up.” Also, the question of why Texas has been hit by both West Nile and Ebola comes up, and the answer is: “a gigantic open door” welcoming diseases from Africa, Mexico, and Central and South America.

What are you seeing in the Ebola coverage? Any gross misinformation or rumor-mongering? I’d especially like to see interesting examples of local media coverage in Dallas, and to hear from my fellow journalists in the Big D.

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