Friday, October 17, 2014

Fox News demonstrates both good and bad ways to cover Ebola

Some news outlets, including Fox, have been wildly spreading fears about Ebola. As an example of both good and bad ways that the media covers science, let’s take a look at a recent clip from Fox News in which they interview Dr. David Sanders about the possibility of Ebola virus mutating to become airborne-transmissible (right now it is only spread by direct contact!)



Their story is titled "Purdue professor says Ebola 'primed' to go airborne.Here is a link to the video.

I’ll start off with the good things:

1) Dr. Sanders did a good job explaining that Ebola is not airborne right now, but there is a "non-zero" probability that Ebola might mutate to infect the lungs and become air transmissible. And this probability increases as more people are infected.
2) The newscasters did a good job of accurately recapping what he was explaining without blowing it out of proportion.

Now for some bad things:

1) Quite obviously, the scare-you-into-clicking-on-it title. First of all, it's completely misleading for the sole purpose of grabbing attention (it got me!). Second of all, it's completely false. I watched it three times and Dr. Sanders never said "primed." So it is blatantly incorrect.
2) They did not include coverage of other scientists that claim the fears of airborne transmission are over-hyped because there are no instances of that ever happening naturally for a virus that infects humans. HIV and hepatitis are both good examples that have infected millions without changing their route of transmission.
3) The way Dr. Sanders describes his published research is a little misleading in the context of this story. It sounds like he describes the research demonstrated Ebola virus can infect the lungs. In fact, the actual study showed that if you take some of the proteins from the surface of Ebola and code them into a completely different virus (in this case a feline lentivirus, similar to HIV), you can infect human airway epithelial cells grown in cell culture. So this research did not use the full Ebola virus, and did not demonstrate this infection in a live animal model. Link to study here: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12719583

Some of these negative aspects might be a consequence of the brevity of this story. However, in an information-dense world, people get the news in short snippets, so the media needs to be careful not to compromise accuracy.

Interestingly, on the same network, Shep Smith reported on Ebola with commendable accuracy. He communicated the facts clearly and concisely while criticizing “hysterical” reporting as “irresponsible.” 

I hope future reports from Fox News and the rest of the media follow his tone.

*Update Nov 19, 2014: A follow up to this post detailing a thoughtful response from Dr. Sanders can be found here.


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