HEALTH POLICY RESPONSES AND NEWS MEDIA COVERAGE OF AN EMERGING OUTBREAK: THE CASE OF EBOLA
Sell, Tara Kirk
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The Ebola outbreak of 2014-2015 and the resulting media and policy responses provide an important case for studying dreaded communicable diseases and other public health emergencies that will test public health policy development and emergency communication. This research examined public health response policies to the Ebola outbreak as well as media messages about these policies and risks from Ebola. Federal guidance and state policies determining how to manage individuals within the U.S. who may have been exposed to Ebola were systematically identified and analyzed. In addition, the volume of news coverage and content of U.S.-focused news stories about Ebola was analyzed for risk-related messages that were judged to potentially increase or decrease perception of risk and policy-related messages about the Ebola response. Policies on quarantine, movement restrictions, exposure categories, and monitoring varied. A number of states enacted more aggressive policies than were called for in guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Examination of news coverage showed that the volume of stories about Ebola rapidly increased following diagnosis of the Ebola case in Dallas in September 2014. Furthermore, all policy-related messages studied showed significant increases in frequency after this date, with the exception of messages related to isolation, which showed a significant decrease. Overall, 96% of news stories contained one or more risk-elevating messages, with messages about foreigners or travelers bringing Ebola to the U.S. (72%), those describing the disease causing deaths (66%), and those about a potential U.S. outbreak/people in the U.S. contracting Ebola (35%) appearing most frequently. In addition, 82% of news stories contained at least one or more policy-related message, with those about isolation (47%) and quarantine (40%) appearing most frequently. Findings provide greater understanding of the interplay between news media coverage of emerging risks and theories on risk perception as well as how the news media covers policies to manage emerging disease threats. This research may help public health practitioners and policymakers anticipate what policies could be implemented in response to future infectious disease threats and to understand and improve the messaging landscape around infectious disease risks and policies.