Ebola and NU: A Communication Crisis

Much like the SARS epidemic of 2003, and more recently, the 2009 swine flu epidemic, the Ebola outbreak is undoubtedly one of the most defining public health issues of our generation. From tweets to direct coverage of the epidemic, news and updates about Ebola are everywhere, and despite the fact that the virus’s epicenter is continents away, panic about Ebola has spread much quicker than the disease itself—even here at Northeastern.

While there have been several cases of Ebola diagnosed in the US, the risk of an American contracting Ebola is just 1 in 13 million: you’re more likely to die in a plane crash or be killed by a shark. Assistant professor Susan Mello says the true threat to the Northeastern population is the often misleading information perpetuated by news outlets and social networking websites.

“Journalists want people to respond to their headlines,” Mello warns, “and with the way social media is, they want something that’s going to be catchy. Those tend to be ambiguous or potentially sensationalist titles.”

Additionally, the opposing messages surrounding the Ebola crisis and the presentation of Ebola as a political issue creates confusion for media consumers. We may not be in danger, but the powerful images we see on our Facebook news feed make the threat of Ebola seem much closer to home.

The impact of Ebola on our community goes beyond Boston. As a large university with a global reach, Northeastern officials must take care to preserve relationships with international universities and programs while keeping students safe from potential harm. The best course of action, Mello says, is to temporarily discourage students from traveling to affected areas while maintaining long-term relationships and being sure not to give the impression that Northeastern is cutting its ties with those in affected West African regions. Mello also insists that “institutions like this need to be careful not to inadvertently stigmatize certain groups and their communications.” Just as misinformation can create worry, it can also lead to the stereotyping of individuals, something that is especially dangerous during public crises.

As Northeastern students, Ebola likely seems both mysterious and frightening. However, there are steps that we can take to increase awareness of the reality of the situation. First, be sure that you are receiving information from credible news sources. Look for hard facts and statistics rather than taking catchy headlines at face value. Meanwhile, it’s necessary to shed light on the crisis in West Africa, especially as news coverage has dropped in America. Knowledge, rather than fear, will enable us to come together as global citizens and help affected areas stop the epidemic.