In May, the Ebola virus struck Zaire, killing 170 before it was contained. In covering the story, the media often mixed fact with fiction, aided with footage from the newly-released movie, Outbreak. Although Dutch journalist and media critic Peter Vasterman describes European press coverage, American reports were the same--or worse.
A sure way to boost sagging ratings
fragments of radio news reached his brain, still clouded by his regular morning headache. Then, suddenly, from the car radio: there was a breaking story about a new epidemic involving the deadly Ebola virus in Zaire. He turned up the volume. "Jeez," his mind raced, "that's the virus from the movie, Outbreak." He hadn't actually seen the movie--no time, since he began his new job as senior editor at Channel Two. |
Even before he reached the television station, he knew his plans for that evening's broadcast. They'd open and close with frightening clips from Outbreak. In between, they would show new footage from Africa--if any was available--explained by some sort of Ebola expert. They'd find a professor somewhere. It would be great; pictures of all those people in orange space suits would be exciting and sure to boost sagging ratings!
He wrote the introduction, pecking at the keyboard with two fingers: "...It is so frightening, but at the same time so very unlikely that only a Hollywood scriptwriter could have dreamed up this story, but now it is really happening. While the film Outbreak about a mysterious virus that tries to wipe out humanity is doing extremely well at the box office, Zaire today became the scenery of a real virus explosion. Enough to give you the creeps too, tonight on Channel Two!"
For TV news producers, it was a dream come true
This was the scene
in the newsroom at Channel Two in the Netherlands on Thursday evening, May eleventh. Likely similar events were taking place in every television newsroom around the world that day. For TV news producers, it was a dream come true: the top news story matched the plot of a hit film, currently playing worldwide. They could dress up their newscast with footage from the movie, provided--free, of course--by the motion picture studio.|
There's just one little problem: the movie was about the fictitious "Motaba" virus, not Ebola, resulting in a disturbing mix of fact and Hollywood fiction. And although the press also relied heavily on Richard Preston's bestselling book The Hot Zone, describing efforts to contain an Ebola outbreak in Reston, Virgina, the "fabrication" of wrong quotes from the book caused another major distortion in the Ebola coverage. The media could not resist the temptation to tell the viewers that the nightmare had become reality in Zaire.
As planned, the current affairs program Today on Two shows clips from Outbreak. Viewers see images of an impenetrable green wilderness, sounds of the jungle, someone--or something--breathing heavily, and a sort of deep pounding on the ground. An American voice-over explains: "A monster, hidden since the dawn of time in the African rainforest, has been awakened by an approaching humanity. It is a killer without remorse, cold, logical, invisible. And now the monster is loose."
Because of movie sound effects, it is difficult to hear the scientist
Army helicopters fly over a small American town as a voice barks harshly: "No one is allowed to leave this town!" Anchorman Rick Nieman continues his story: "...The movie Outbreak is based on a true story about an unknown ape virus with the name Reston that escapes by accident..." (Image: a cute little ape scratches a man's arm. ) "...threatening the whole world population, but fortunately that remains fiction." (Image: the man, apparently infected, collapses in his pet store, falling against large aquariums.)|
After all this suspense, we suddenly see the Belgium professor Van der Groen in his lab. With his tanned and bearded face, the professor is probably the most sought-after European expert in the field of viruses because he discovered Ebola Zaire in 1976. Because of the sound of crashing aquariums, his first words are difficult to understand. He explains that people can be infected by the Reston virus--figuring in The Hot Zone--but that it is only life-threatening to apes. After all the clips from Outbreak that information is difficult to fit in the picture of a virus finishing human life on earth. Even more confusing must be the next line delivered by the anchorman: "But in the meantime in an outpost somewhere in Zaire the nightmare became a reality. The deadly Ebola virus killed already more than 170 people." (By the way: it's questionable to call a city like Kikwit with more than 600.000 inhabitants an "outpost.")
Back to the footage again: the viewers now see a small group of children following in an orderly fashion and a man walking with a bicycle, with an unknown destination. One wonders: is this new recent footage from Zaire or something from the image archives? A voice-over gives the information that "...the people from Kikwit were desperately running away from their homes, despite the strict quarantine policy." Back to professor Van der Groen who gives a contradicting statement: "The plan to isolate Kikwit was not carried out and it would be very difficult to do so, there are plans, however, to close the schools."
Back to a clip from the exciting movie
Today on Two
continues with a quick historical background on the Ebola-virus: the outbreak in Marburg in 1967 and in Zaire in 1976. The statements by professor Van der Groen seem to calm the Today on Two reporters a little bit: you cannot get Ebola through the air, only through contact with a victims' fluids. The voice-over adds: "We don't have to be afraid of a worldwide epidemic like AIDS, Ebola's syndrome is much too direct." Whatever that last part of the sentence might mean, remains a mystery for the average viewer.|
Van der Groen himself also fools the viewers by using an odd structure in his next statement: "HIV, that's a completely different virus, but if you ask me what is really dangerous, I would say Ebola and its friends the filoviruses, they are...little sheep compared to the HIV virus."
Today on Two reaches for a conclusion: "The chances for the Outbreak script to become a reality are very small." Nevertheless we go back to a clip from the exciting movie: "The most optimistic projection for the spread of the virus is this:" (images of a huge US map with some red dots), "24 hours" (more red dots), "36 hours'"(a whole lot more red dots), "48 hours" (the U.S. is now completely red). Sympathetic young anchorman Rick Nieman smiles to the viewers: "Fortunately it is not as bad as that. And now something completely different..."
Excerpts are quoted completely out of context
That same evening,
Thursday May eleven, almost all news programs around the world carry stories about the Ebola virus in Zaire. In newscasts like the Nine O'clock BBC News, we see virus experts like Van der Groen explain that there is no proof whatsoever that this virus can become airborne, as is the case in the film Outbreak, and that the chances for an epidemic outside of Zaire are extremely small. Although some news programs like the Dutch NOS Journal describe Ebola as a "very contagious virus," the experts emphasize that the chance for an infection is quite small, because you clearly have to touch the victim's blood (vomit or feces) while the victim is dying.|
All this panic is overdone. The victims are dying so fast that there is not a chance of infecting many people, for instance while traveling to one of the Western capitals. One Dutch expert thinks that even walking around in these famous orange space suits is not really necessary if you can organize a strict "barrier nursing." You cannot compare Ebola with AIDS, he says; it will extinguish very quickly in a natural way. "This means that the chances for transmission are too low to cause a real epidemic." The pharmaceutical industry is not interested in looking for a vaccine because the number of casualties is much too small to make such an investment worthwhile.
The next day, Dutch Channel Two shows a 1994 Canadian documentary, The Deadly Virus, about the "dreaded" Ebola fever. Before that,Today on Two summarizes events, and Ebola is identified again with lots of victims, infections by apes and--of course--people in space suits.
Excerpts from the documentary are quoted completely out of context. The experts in the documentary are talking about Reston, but the viewer thinks they are talking about Ebola 1995. Their claim that one of the animal keepers in Reston got infected, became ill, but managed to survive, is not true. The documentary deals largely with the events in Reston, a town near Washington D.C., where hundreds of apes were killed in 1989 because they were infected by an Ebola-like filovirus, now known as the Reston virus. Reston kills apes, but is not dangerous to human beings.
Nevertheless, the documentary ends with the pessimistic prediction that new viruses might be able to travel all over the world within 24 hours and are thus capable of causing a worldwide epidemic. The Reston virus was transmitted through the air. And if that happens, it might mean the end of humanity.
That threat was at the center of the whole media coverage following the events in Zaire, in which clear distinctions were not made between the different filoviruses: Marburg (1967), Ebola Zaire (1976), Reston (1989), and--of course--the fictitious virus in Outbreak.
Quotes were fabricated
in Europe was divided. Some of the media supported fears of a very contagious virus that can completely destroy humanity. Other papers presented informative stories with many statements from virus experts, putting this virus in its perspective.|
A good example of this "two-sided" coverage can be found in the Dutch national newspaper Trouw, May 11. Headline: "Fear for Outbreak Epidemic Deadly Virus in Zaire." In his article, mainly based on press agency material, the reporter quotes from the book ( called a "thriller") The Hot Zone, by journalist Richard Preston: "A dangerous virus from the rain forest is not more than 24 hours away by plane from any part of the world. The Ebola virus can do in ten days what the AIDS virus needs ten years for."
Another quote from The Hot Zone appeared the next day in the same newspaper: "Just like the AIDS virus, Ebola is not very contagious." The science reporters probably haven't read Preston's book; if they had, they would have discovered that these specific--and most well-known--quotes do not exist.
The two parts of the quote can be found in The Hot Zone, but there are at least thirty (!) pages between the two sentences. The first sentence is: "An active virus from the rain forest can travel by airplane within 24 hours to every city in the world." (From the Dutch translation, p.30.) The second sentence is: "From the moment Ebola reaches your blood circulation you're doomed to die. You cannot fight Ebola like a common cold. Ebola does in ten days what AIDS needs ten years for." (Page 63, Dutch translation.) In the book, it is perfectly clear that this last sentence relates to the syndrome of a patient infected by the Ebola virus and not to the worldwide spread of the virus.
A Dustin Hofmann film fuels fears of a new killer to rival AIDS
is: who fabricated this "new" quote from Preston? Hunting through the messages of the different press agencies on May 10, the day before, gives some clues. One of the first messages (headline: "Ebola Virus can be Deadlier Than HIV") comes from the German DPA (Deutsche Presse Agentur) and contains several quotes from The Hot Zone: "A dangerous virus from the rain forest is not more than 24 hours away by air from any part of the world." And after some other sentences: "The Ebola virus cannot be got rid of like a cold. It does in ten days what AIDS needs ten years for." The report also gives very alarming statements like: "Ebola is much more infectious than the HIV which causes AIDS."|
British Reuters also tends to sound the alarm: "An epidemic more gory than AIDS...But experts say its victims turn to mush too quickly to spark a global plague...While the symptoms surpass any horror movie, the release in Britain of a new Dustin Hofmann film chronicling a devastating viral epidemic has fueled fears of a new killer to rival AIDS."
It must be said that Reuters also distributes a lot of reports containing accurate information in which experts say it is wrong to compare Ebola to AIDS. Another source for the Dutch news program could also have been The Times, being one of the first media on May 10 to report on the Ebola epidemic that "some strains can be transmitted in the air." The Times reporter also quotes from Preston: "Easy travel makes it possible that viruses such as Ebola and Marburg will escape from their home range and spread around the world." To increase the alarm, he adds: "Health experts fear it could cut a swath through densely-populated Europe and America, making AIDS 'look like a common cold.'" Needless to say, there is a difference between people traveling by air and a virus that can be transmitted by air.
Probably these quotes in the very first reports on the Ebola outbreak strongly influenced the way reporters all over the world covered the story. It took a few days before newspapers and TV stations came up with accurate background information and experts explaining the real dangers. In the meantime, the number of casualties went down instead of up, from 200 back to 30, then rising again to a 100, ending at about 170.
What will the average viewers remember?
as can be discovered, there has been only one newspaper, Die Zeit, May 19, in which a microbiologist writes seriously about the events in the film Outbreak, where the main point is a mutation of an ape virus into a virus deadly for human beings. Jan ter Meulen from the Bernhard-Nocht-Institut in Hamburg says that theoretically it is possible that an Ebola virus could mutate and develop new qualities, but this process only takes place when there is a selection advantage. With Ebola that is not the case; this virus seems to possess a very strong genetic stability and hasn't changed at all the past 20 years. "On the one hand, this virus is very well adapted to its natural host--that is why it is so very stable--on the other hand, it kills people so quickly that a selection of mutant is impossible."|
A mutation of this virus during an epidemic among a population is very unlikely. Furthermore, never has any virus changed its way of transmission.
It would be very interesting to investigate what the average viewers remember about the outbreak. Would they know that Ebola cannot develop into an epidemic like AIDS, because people are dying too fast? That Ebola can be transmitted by an airplane but not in the air? Probably they'll tell quite another story: "Yeah, it was the same virus as in the movie, Outbreak, and it's a good thing they got it contained: it could have killed everybody in the world."
In reality, an epidemic did sweep the world in May. Only this disease hit only newsrooms, and its primary symptom was blurred judgement: not always was the distinction between fact and Hollywood fantasy made clear.
Peter Vasterman is a professor at the Dutch School of Journalism and Communication in Utrecht. His main area is researching mediahypes.
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