You will not die of Ebola and How the News Industry Works

Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear…

It is a very bad time to be a journalist.  Much of my profession is engaged in a form of mass hysteria that would do credit to a 16th century tulip boom, a 19th century charlatan rainmaker or the great 20th century Y2K scam.

So lets take a breath and state the obvious: You will not die of Ebola – unless, of course, you live in Western Africa: then it is a possibility.

I am not an expert in epidemiology, infectious diseases or public health but I do know the news media.

The media is an industry that, for the most part, removes ‘news’ product from a pipeline, changes it slightly and hangs it up in their local shop as their own ‘news’. If you are in the newsroom of a Danish television program, a Pakistani radio station or a Colombian newspaper (or similar place around the world) – what the senior editors often do is see what is coming down the pipeline and then select chunks of it.

The media pipeline product is easy to use.  It is usually visual images, completed interviews, quotes or chunks of text which have already passed through a vetting process.  The ‘wires’ – Reuters, AP, etc – will literally send feeds of material ready to be used to their subscribers.  For a local editor it is easier to use or comment on  ‘news’ pipeline product then generate their own news stories which involves money, hard work and risk. This does not mean that every news item in every media outlet around the world is always the same, but it does explain why so much of ‘news’ does not vary around the world.

These media pipelines, for the most part, begin in New York, Los Angeles and London.  There are smaller regional centres – Bombay and New Delhi in India, Paris in France, Berlin in Germany, etc – but still, much of the ‘news’ of the day is defined by the media pipeline producers in those three large centres.

To produce mass hysteria you do not have to convince tens-of-thousands of journalists around the world, just those relatively few controllers of the media pipelines in New York, Los Angeles and London.  Fake panics are even easier to produce when some of those controllers have a political agenda.

For this mass hysteria around Ebola was generated by the recent mid-term elections in the United States Congress.

The now-victorious Republican party did not want to debate real issues like health care, shipping jobs offshore or high-levels of debt.   All of those topics could have cost them votes.  Their Democratic opponents did not have the courage or the media savvy to debate these real issues.  Into that news vacuum the American media and politicians latched on to a health crisis thousands-of-miles away and declared it a national emergency. Thus was born the fake Ebola crisis.

The results of this media-whipped fakery were cringing.   Pavements being scrubbed with bleach outside the apartment of a Doctors Without Borders (MSF) medic in New York: another MSF worker being hounded as she went for a bike ride: in Hong Kong a study was released and then ignored by the rest of the world that showed 670,000 people had died in one year in China from the results of pollution. To put that number into context, this is about 669,990 more victims than people who have died from Ebola outside of west Africa.

However, during all of this nonsense much (there were some very few honourable exceptions) of the print and electronic media – did not do their jobs.  They did not ask tough questions. They did not say either to American politicians or the people siphoning off the media pipeline – is this actually a crisis?

Two, and far more importantly, much of this hysteria diverted attention and funds away from fighting against Ebola where it really matters  – West Africa.

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