Ebola graffiti

Did ‘risk messages’ affect U.S. response to Ebola?

How the news media and public officials communicated risk to Americans during the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa may have influenced the public’s willingness to help those in need.

The Ebola outbreak gained substantial media momentum during the final three months of 2014. In October, a Liberian man visiting family in Texas became the first diagnosed Ebola patient in the United States to die from the disease.

Public health officials announced three other confirmed cases later that month. Around the same time, President Barack Obama spoke of the unlikelihood of an Ebola epidemic in the US, a powerful reassurance echoed by the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The messages calmed domestic fears, but they also translated into minimal assistance from the US public to the affected region, at least compared to American responses to other recent crises or disasters, such as the Haitian earthquake, says Janet Yang, a University at Buffalo associate professor of communication.

“It was a great opportunity to study a risk communication issue,” she says.

‘How deeply the message is processed’

Yang says statistics at the time confirmed the issue’s importance to the American public, but she wanted to examine the variance between what’s important to a news consumer and what’s personally relevant in terms of that same person being affected, or the country being affected.

Yang’s study, recently published in the journal Risk Analysis, manipulated risk perception to determine what factors might influence altruistic behavior, which she measured as support for family and friends if they were to go to West Africa as Ebola responders.

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In a nationally representative sample involving more than 1,000 adults, Yang assigned two experimental conditions to the subjects: a high-risk article about Ebola modeled after one that appeared in a major newspaper that mentioned two confirmed cases in the US, and a low-risk version with the detail about the domestic cases omitted.

The content in both conditions was equally dire, mentioning Ebola cases possibly climbing into the millions.

“Even that subtle change triggered different levels of risk perception,” Yang says.

“When we manipulate risk perception, we see that two factors influence altruistic behaviors across the two conditions,” she says. “One is issue salience or the perceived importance of the Ebola outbreak. The other is how deeply the message is processed.”

Fear vs. sadness

In the high-risk condition, the perceived importance of the issue was much more effective in getting people to feel more altruistic, but there is no such correlation in the low-risk condition. Meantime, those who reflected deeply on the message reported much more altruistic behavior intention, something not present in the low-risk condition, says Yang.

Emotions also played a significant role. Yang measured anger, empathy, fear, panic, and sadness. Participants reported sadness and anger most often, but the two had significant yet opposite effects.

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“Those who reported sadness were much more like to support family and friends responding to the crisis,” says Yang. “Sadness might make participants feel more sympathetic toward the victims.”

Anger, however, she says, was often antagonistic, directed at international health organizations.

Participants also reported significant levels of fear, but that didn’t engender altruistic intention since the emotion is often managed by avoiding the issue, according to Yang.

The National Science Foundation funded the study.

Source: University at Buffalo