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Modern media does not always have the best reputation for providing complex and nuanced commentary.
The news cycle is sensational enough when we’re dealing with the regular issues of the day. But, as Visual Capitalist’s Jeff Desjardins notes, add in some uncertainty and urgency – such as when the world is dealing with an outbreak like SARS, Mad Cow Disease, Ebola, or even Y2K – and each headline seems to get more provocative or speculative than the last.
Today’s graphics come to us from Information is Beautiful, and they show the intensity of news mentions for different topics that stoked frenzies in the media from 2000-2017.
We all make mistakes, but headlines for Ebola brought a new level of hyperbole to the table.
“Ebola in the air? A nightmare that could happen” – CNN (link)
“New Ebola Cases May Soon Reach 10,000 a Week, Officials Predict” – NYT (link)
“Ebola as ISIS Bio-Weapon?” – Forbes (link)
In fact, the outbreak in 2014 goes down as the most sensationalized events in the last 17 years.
Here’s all other topics scaled to match Ebola mentions (which go “off the page” in the first graph):
Nothing is even close.
By the way, it turned out that Ebola didn’t mutate into a scary airborne virus. The CNN article with the crazy headline even admits in the body of the article itself: “Speculation that Ebola virus disease might mutate into a form that could easily spread among humans through the air is just that: speculation, unsubstantiated by any evidence.”
Meanwhile, Ebola cases hit a maximum rate of 6,987 in a month, mainly because of delayed reporting of older cases in Liberia. Regardless, that is just 17% of the predicted “10,000 cases per week” rate reported in a New York Times headline.
Finally, as you’re probably aware: ISIS did not weaponize Ebola, either. Made for good clickbait, though.
When we scale the data to match total deaths, the sensationalism of many of the outbreaks is even clearer:
The death count for Ebola did eventually hit 11,310 globally, and Swine Flu resulted in 18,500 lab-confirmed deaths (and potentially many more). However, most of these outbreaks were relatively harmless in relative terms. The Zika Virus, for example, resulted in only a handful of deaths.
While having zero deaths is certainly the ideal, and many of the issues above should be taken very seriously especially as stories develop, we should be careful not to blow things out of proportion. Making mountains out of molehills does not help anyone, and it adds to growing distrust of media in general.