I have long held the assumption that the media’s role in modern society is not, in fact, to objectively report events that happen in the world but rather to selectively choose those stories that serve an ideological end—the news, then, is not the news but those phenomena chosen to be the news. In pursuing these ideological ends, it is often the case that fear can be utilized as an effective tool in order to induce behavioral change. When the genuine threat is low, yet the desired behavioral change is high, there tends to be a fear-inducing message promulgated by the media. Conversely, when the genuine threat is high, and there is a demand for containment and control, there is a fear-reducing message. I recently came across a study where my assumptions have been validated by proper academic analysis: here, Sheldon Ungar, a Canadian sociologist, writes about “moral panics” and “hot crises” where the author basically says, when the media tells you “don’t worry,” be afraid, and when they tell you “worry,” just relax. The lack of certainty and the nefarious desire to control everyday people is what fuels the fire that burns in the engine of hysteria.
In his paper from the British Journal of Sociology, Mr. Ungar describes three different models of moral panics: (1) those constructed by the elite in order to achieve a specific end point, (2) those constructed by a specific interest group in order to set agendas and subsequently gain from the fear response, and (3) organic panic that starts small and then builds momentum as it spreads, eventually boiling over. Essentially, the first two are top-down paradigms, and the third is bottom-up. What makes the third so dangerous, however, is the lack of organized control. When the powers that be realize that bottom-up panic is about to boil over, Mr. Ungar says that media narratives switch from stories that provoke hysteria to ones that attempt to assuage the public angst.
In describing the Ebola epidemic of 1995 in Zaire, for example, the author describes narratives labeled “contagion” followed by “containment.” This type of paradigm explains why just a few weeks ago, in response to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, the disease could be regarded as a remote threat localized to a region of the world far, far away where poor medical facilities and health care infrastructure allowed the quick spread of the disease (contagion). The security of thousands of miles plus modern Western health care acted as a buffer, but with recent reports of inadequate preparation, treatment, and lack of knowledge of how to treat Ebola, the aura of American invulnerability has now evaporated. Enter fear, hysteria, and panic and the resultant need for order (containment).
Such tools need not be constrained to the recent saturation of media with Ebola fears. For example, consider influenza and the threat of another terror attack in the post-9/11 world: statistically speaking, loss of life from either the seasonal flu or terrorism was, and still remains, drastically low. One trip to any international airport or counting the number of surveillance cameras in any major urban square on American soil reveals the innumerable end points derived from point 1 discussed above.
Subsequently, the sociologist and author of Moral Panics, Erich Goode, argues that “seizing on small threats from the putative agent supposedly responsible for the danger and exaggerating them into major threats, to the point where even imaginary agents become threatening” are characteristic of moral panics. This exaggeration blames the innocent simply because they resemble a remote putative agent. Goode describes this as, “an evil agent responsible for the threatening condition” but not the evil itself. This helps explain why Muslims in general are associated with terrorists, or the tendency to associate everyone from West Africa with Ebola. Herein lies the irrational fear leading the demand to cease any and all flights from that area of the world.
At the end of the day, Ebola is a real, legitimate threat, but simultaneously, that threat is contained to a very select group of people who must have had a certain type of exposure to another infected person at a specific time. So while I won’t advise anyone to buy bodysuits and helmets now, I wouldn’t also advise anyone to pay a visit to Dr. Craig Spencer at Bellevue Hospital, either.
By and large, the most dangerous effect of moral panic is its propensity to drive irrational behavior. And, when those in positions of power become infected by the moral panic, they are able to criminalize the innocent through coercion and at the expense of personal liberty and reason. Human history is plagued by cycles of moral panics constructed against things, and even worse, select groups of people, and the results are never beneficial.
A fitting example is the widely publicized case of Kaci Hickox, a nurse returning from West Africa, who was originally quarantined in a New Jersey hospital under the mandate of New Jersey’s Governor Christie. Moral panic demanded that Ms. Hickox, returning home from Sierra Leone, be locked in a box away from the rest of society regardless of the fact that she lacked symptoms of any disease, and she also lacked a fever when it was appropriately measured. In an even more extreme case, an asymptomatic child, Ikeoluwa Opayemi, was barred from her education because of the concern of panicked parents, described in this article in the NY Times.
Besides the fact that quarantine of the asymptomatic defies current scientific logic, if one were to think of Ebola from a global (as opposed to a regional) perspective, in order to stop the spread of the virus, it must be stopped at the source, or West Africa. Accordingly, any measure that inhibits healthcare workers from traveling to and from the source in order to stem the epidemic is a paradigm that may assuage fear nationally but acts to the detriment of the health of the community internationally. Also, if there were an infinite supply of healthcare workers, then mandatory quarantine wouldn’t be an issue. America may have a small shortage of healthcare workers, but in Africa that deficiency is severe.
Finally, the fuel that feeds the moral panic are the sensationalized cases of those who contracted the disease, and to date the total number of confirmed cases on U.S soil remains less than 7—meaning there are roughly 316 million Americans who remain Ebola-free, but the odds of 7 out of 300 million plus won’t make the big headlines.
A reasonable approach is being taken in Texas where the more than 70 health care workers who cared for the late Thomas Eric Duncan are not being quarantined, but instead report daily on their health and have also been advised to avoid public venues. So far with this reasonable approach, none have developed symptoms. And, in the least reported story of them all, the four people who actually lived with Mr. Duncan for days as his condition worsened all have not been infected.
Let us all not panic.
Dr. C. H. E. Sadaphal