Health Journalism – Taking it with a grain of salt

By Audrey Roen

Is it just me, or has anyone else encountered enough Ebola jokes to last a lifetime? Now, I love a bad joke just as much as the next person, but the tipping point for me was when I saw a “sexy Ebola nurse” costume for sale this Halloween. Luckily, according to Forbes magazine, not too many people bought it, but it makes me wonder why people feel the need to make fun of an illness that caused over 13,500 cases and over 4,900 deaths worldwide. What part about this infectious disease is so comical?

Then I realized that it isn’t the illness itself that people are making fun of but rather how much we’ve been hearing about it compared to how little it is spreading, especially in the U.S.. The joking is proof of yet another attempt by health journalists to inform but they ending up terrifying the general public.

While the Ebola threat is very real in a few African countries, the Centers for Disease Control said the virus is highly unlikely to spread throughout the U.S.. Still, that doesn’t stop Americans from feeling threatened. According to a Harvard School of Public Health poll released late August, about 40 percent of U.S. adults in the are concerned that there will be an outbreak in America and about 26 percent are concerned that they or someone in their family will contract Ebola within the next year.

Public reaction to the virus is similar to the swine flu hysteria back in 2009. As a contributor to health journalism, it saddens me that many people read health news and feel threatened. A health journalist’s role is to inform, not terrify. I also feel sorry for the journalists who work day in and day out to produce stories, only to find their work rejected or drowned in a sea of similar, even more catastrophic sounding headlines.

Conspiracies and threats spread like wild fire and the more someone hears about an illness the more likely they are to discuss what they heard with someone else, and thus the hysteria cycle begins. The other fact is that large news media outlets aim to have readers—lots of readers—and they feed off our fears in order to give us news that sells.

But, not all hope is lost! There are plenty of journalists out there who, believe it or not, know what they are talking about with no interest in making money off of our fear of the unknown. So, my advice to all you Stars looking for some peace of mind in the vicious cycle of health news conspiracy include the following:

When reading health news

1) Take it with a grain of salt. No matter the outbreak or disease or trend, the author didn’t write it with your life specifically in mind. Know that it’s relevant and worth discussing but try not to relate it back to yourself in every way possible.

2) Repeat after me: “I will not obsess. I will not obsess. I will not obsess.” If you find an article you feel relates to you, don’t diagnose yourself. If symptoms or thoughts of the topic persist, give your doctor a call if it makes you feel better. Walk-in clinics at Walgreens, CVS, even the Wellness Center on campus, are open and willing to take your questions (even the crazy ones).

3) Do your research. If your interest in the topic peaks, do a Google search and look for accredited heath websites like the World Health Organization or the Centers for Disease Control. Consider what multiple experts are saying before assuming we are face to face with a catastrophe. On that note, avoid looking at too many news websites like CNN, ABC, FOX, CNBC, etc. for health-related information. They can only look at small pieces of the puzzle and have little time and space to account for the whole picture.

4) Think of other illnesses or diseases present in the U.S. which may be cause for greater worry than the one you are currently reading about. Take, for example, the common flu. Only 46 percent of the population gets vaccinated but it kills approximately 24,000 Americans every year. It’s not quite as exotic as Ebola but it certainly warrants our attention and choice to vaccinate ourselves.

So, I hope this helps a little when reading health-related journalism. The next time you hear an update on Ebola or hear threats of a new virus or health trend plaguing America, be sure to do your research, ask the experts, and above all to take it with a grain of salt. Be well, Stars!

roenaudr@my.dom.edu

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