When I write here, I am almost always writing about entertainment content and rarely about news content. But analyzing the news is what I do in my desk job, and we’re all lying when we say the news isn’t entertainment anyway. Information is entertainment.
If you follow me on Twitter, you know I am rather engaged with this Ebola story. Because news content in general behaves in a viral way (stories spread from nodes of information), it’s particularly interesting in an abstract, science-driven way when the news content is actually about a virus.
But quite outside of that very academic, numbers-driven interest, I’ve noticed something else: The emergence of the “good victim” in the Ebola narrative.
Since Ebola arrived in the U.S. (which was always going to happen the second it reached a major city anywhere in the world in significant numbers), the media has become very interested in telling us how well-liked, church-going, or family oriented individuals who have been infected who get media coverage are. They assure us the first nurse in Dallas to get infected “did all the right things.” They show us cute pictures of her with her dog.
Meanwhile, the second nurse, and the original man diagnosed with the disease here get a lot less coverage. They are blamed for travel, although they either did not have symptoms at the time and/or were given the go ahead by CDC employees. No cute family stories or dog pictures for them, nope. Little coverage on how the man helped a dying pregnant woman who may have been the source of his infection (and whom he may have not known was infected).
There’s a clear racial component in this. The African and African-American victims in the U.S. have received less overall coverage and more critical coverage when visible, much like the thousands of people dealing with the disease in western Africa itself.
The “good victim” narrative also interests me, because it — much like every overheard discussion on the New York City subway system for the last week — recalls the early days of the AIDS plague years. Then there were “innocent” victims who were such heroes because this never should have happened to them. They were largely straight, white, female, and young.
AIDS should never happen to anyone. Neither should Ebola. And yet they do. And the good and bad victim narratives — which I thought might be avoided this time around because of no overwhelming focus on a sexual component of the disease — is incredibly dangerous because you can’t stop an epidemic when you only care about protecting some people from it.
Case in point? AIDS rates amongst blacks in the U.S. and AIDS rates in Africa. For lots of people the epidemic hasn’t gone anywhere but on and on and on. And how we talk about people with AIDS is part of how that has happened. We’ve never had the same urgency for everyone. And it’s resulted in a lot of deaths.
It is reasonable and wise for the news media to use personalization to cover Ebola. People often connect to stories better when they can engage with them as they affect singular individuals. But coverage that suggests only some people deserve that personalization increases danger, both from the epidemic itself, and from the hideous fear-based non-solutions that people start shouting about when there are “good” and “bad” victims of a disease.
Travel bans, camps, euthanasia. We’ve heard all that and more out of politicians’ mouths in the last week. For those of you who weren’t there, we heard the same things in the 80s about AIDS. We even made miniseries about some of those ideas. And that they were talked about so seriously, that they were so terrifying to me in my childhood, is why I name none of the people diagnosed with Ebola in the U.S. here. I’m not a news source and I don’t wish to contribute to risks they face from stigmatization of those with Ebola (although I also acknowledge that not naming names may actually increase stigma; it’s a hard choice).
But clearly, that cautionary entertainment in the 1980s (and fictional media about epidemics is entertainment no matter how cautionary, just as news is entertainment no matter how fictional) has taught us nothing. A recent spate of period pieces about the plague years haven’t reminded us of past mistakes either.
Instead, we’ve got a media banking on fear and an overly frightened American populace being taught that only some people don’t deserve to get sick (being female, light-skinned, and godly seem to help individuals get placed in this category), and that it’s perfectly fine to ignore everyone else. Even if it’s a lie, and even if that act of ignoring is what helps epidemics spread.
While it’s likely there will be no further transmissions in the U.S. from this set of cases, and despite all sorts of actions being taken out of an “abundance of caution” — some of which have made no sense at all; can we really sustain national panic attacks over every case of morning sickness or food poisoning? — it’s fairly likely that another case will show up in the U.S. because of the current nature of global travel and the incubation period.
So right now, the news media needs to make the choice to be one of the tools that helps to contain Ebola in America and globally. Dispensing with “good victim” rhetoric is a key part of that.