Risk Communication and Ebola

The content, angle and framing of this image add to a 'fear' response. But it's better than a virus particle image. Image: The Speaker, Flickr.com. Just this past week, I gave a lecture on risk communication to the students of Coastal Environmental Communication (#SciCommLSU) at the Manship School of Mass Communication. I found myself comparing our relatively low concern with serious, long-term environmental impacts in coastal Louisiana with our irrationally high concern over low probability risks, including coming into contact with the Ebola virus while in the U.S.

Seeing the current state of overblown fears over Ebola in the U.S., when that concern would be much more constructively channeled into efforts to contain the outbreak in West Africa, is disheartening. At this point, we sorely need experienced risk communicators to help steer our risk perceptions in better directions.

Exhibit A:

So what can journalists and other communicators learn from the world of risk communication, to help people in the U.S. better deal psychologically and physically with the current Ebola outbreak (which is taking place in West Africa, NOT in Dallas)?

For one, facts matter less and less as emotions take over. Communication of risks is simply not as straightforward as most scientists and science communicators would like to think. Yes, I can show you diagrams of the Ebola virus structure and DNA all day long, and explain exactly why laboratory experiments with Ebola viruses don't fully predict real-world scenarios. But if you are already worried, these facts won't likely diminish your irrational concerns in any meaningful way when your friend from Dallas says he's coming to visit.

But why is this? How can Americans continue to think of Ebola as a high-risk threat when scientists explain that the virus is NOT airborne and actually doesn't spread easily when established infection control measures are observed? One problem, of course, is that members of the non-specialist public are apt to not trust scientists as much as they trust their own observations and experiences. But most Americans also don't have the proper mental models for understanding Ebola and how it spreads.

When you say Ebola, most Americans are apt to think of The Hot Zone (now being made into a TV series... great...). Or they might envision the spread of more familiar viruses such as those that cause the flu - thus the mean joke of coughing and saying 'I have Ebola'. These are very inaccurate mental models when it comes to understanding the actual risks of coming into contact, or being in the presence, of someone with Ebola. But people's mental models, or their worldviews of how the world works, are quite difficult to counteract with simple messaging techniques or informational campaigns.

But there are other issues at play in overblown perceptions of Ebola risks in the U.S. Risk perception researchers have established that people often perceive greater risk from low probability events with severe outcomes (like Ebola) than they do from high probability events with less severe or delayed outcomes. When we bring emotion and fear into the mix, people's risk estimates and risk perceptions can end up looking like they do for some people in the U.S. right now - paranoid about Ebola.

"emotion experienced at the point of decision making often drives behavior, rather than a cognitive assessment of the risks." - Chapman & Coups

People worry more about risks over which they feel they have no control. This is important in the case of Ebola, because people, especially in the U.S., DO have control, in the form of basic, well-established infection control measure. We are not in the movie Outbreak. There are basic measures that, if observed, make Ebola a diminishing risk in countries with modern medicine and health care systems.

What can journalists covering Ebola learn from risk communication research?

First and foremost, STOP the fear appeals. Fear appeals often don't work the way we intend them too. They often paralyze people into inaction or lead people to engage in fear control responses such as avoidance as opposed to danger control responses - actually taking prescribed preventative measures. Fear appeals may get you traffic, but they are not a responsible approach to journalism.

Stop showing people electron microscope images of Ebola. People don't have mental models to understand these images. They can't relate to these images, and these images certainly don't make them feel any more in control over their risk of being infected. Show images of West Africa, where the crisis really is, or humanized pictures of people and health care workers taking common sense measures (even hand washing!).

Facts are not sufficient. Address the human emotions that are necessarily wrapped up in, and often clouding, the events of this Ebola outbreak and recommended next steps. Don't assume people will take "just the facts" from your coverage of Ebola in the U.S.

Don't lose focus of where the crisis actually is - in West Africa. Address the crisis there, and you've addressed in the crisis in the U.S. as well.

And finally, give people something to do about this! To people in the U.S. worried about Ebola, every news outlet should be saying: don't panic, but do put your concern into action.

There are many health and relief organizations in West Africa in need of resources, and you can help. Even at SciLogs, we have an ongoing crowd-funded project to survey Ebola news coverage, where all funds go to health organizations in West Africa that you can suggest. Not only can you donate to Ebola relief through our #OpenSciLogs project, but you can hear from journalists covering Ebola both in the U.S. and abroad, and even ask them questions yourself.

The fight against Ebola in Guinea. European Commission DG ECHO, Flickr.com