U.S. Ebola coverage got personal when the virus arrived

News coverage of Ebola cases in the United States focused on telling individual stories that humanized those affected, research shows.

Based on these findings, the researchers suggest that reporters covering health crises might have a greater positive impact on their audiences if they write human interest stories that share helpful information.

“In this case, a focus on individuals and their stories probably helped people to better understand how Ebola functions and learn about preventative actions they could take,” says Monique Luisi, assistant professor in the University of Missouri School of Journalism.

In 2014, the United States saw fatal cases of Ebola for the first time. The disease had been mostly contained to West Africa, and US media coverage of the disease in the past had been limited.

Luisi’s team analyzed high circulation US newspapers such as The New York Times and USA Today to determine how stories in each newspaper framed the 2014 Ebola epidemic and how their audiences might understand messaging. Because Ebola quickly became a public health emergency of great importance and relevance to the American public, the media rapidly increased their coverage of Ebola and became a key source of information on the disease and how to prevent it.

The researchers found that a significant proportion of the newspapers covering Ebola used human interest angles to depict in detail how the disease was affecting people’s lives. Human-interest stories encourage empathy and make a reader more likely to want to learn more about an issue, which provides opportunities for increased awareness and action, Luisi says.

Ebola prevention efforts were also popular news fodder because that angle satisfied the public’s desire for a practical solution to the problem. Luisi says this suggests that reporters covering health emergencies should consider writing human-interest stories that also share helpful, factual information.

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“Ebola is a disease that the American population as a whole is not familiar with, and in 2014 there was a strong need for information on how to avoid it,” says Luisi. “This need also might increase with how rampant a disease is. Deadly cases of the flu this year, for example, were followed by human interest stories that included information on how to prevent getting sick or spreading germs.”

The study will appear in the Atlantic Journal of Communication. Coauthors are from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the University of Kansas.

Source: University of Missouri