Ebola: Fear the Fear not the Virus
Recent weeks have seen the proliferation of fear messaging about the Ebola Virus Disease (EVD). The inconsistent messaging that has been targeted at the citizenry of the United Stated and Ohio residents in particular is nothing more than shameful. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the White House, and the media at large have unwittingly or perhaps purposefully created ambiguous messages about EVD that have led to wide spread panic and paralysis. Keeping children home from school out of fear of contracting EVD, servers in restaurants wearing gloves so as not to come in contact with a potential infected person are but a few futile behaviors that develop as a result of such ineffective messaging. Why are we engaging in fear control messages when we should be sending messages designed not only to educate the public but also have them engage in proactive behaviors that serve to mitigate any perceived or real threat? Messages resulting in fear control paralyze publics and have no value as to actually addressing any given threat. Further, fear control messages result in wide-spread hysteria and panic that could threaten public safety. Such irresponsible messaging is not limited to the CDC, White House, and media outlets. If we are to truly take risk and crisis messaging seriously, we need to engage in message creation designed to control danger or danger control messages. Being told by government officials that “they are on it” or “there is nothing to worry about” do little for public safety. These types of messages fuel uncertainty and speculation. Instead, danger control messages advocate not only a realistic degree of susceptibility to the threat but also advocates behaviors that people can engage in to mitigate their susceptibility to the risk. Messages that are designed to educate and advocate are ALWAYS more favorable and effective than messages designed to threaten, perpetuate fear, and do not advocate any proactive behavior on the part of the public. I hope that after the Ebola Virus Disease hype dies down and the media moves on to their next “if it bleeds it leads” story, all of us reflect on how the spread of ineffective fear messages was so much more far reaching than EVD ever was. It is in the realm of health communication, risk communication, and crisis communication where effective messages can be created, disseminated, and assessed. The containment of Ebola Virus Disease is indeed an entity best addressed by healthcare personnel. The messaging about Ebola Virus Disease is indeed and entity best addressed by communication professionals.
Theodore A. Avtgis, Ph.D.
Professor and Chair
Department of Communication Studies