Look, I know we're not all going to get Ebola and die. The CDC has assured us that the chance of a widespread outbreak in the United States is very low. Experts in the news tell us again and again that Ebola has an extremely low transmission rate and that we should worry more about influenza. Well-reasoned pieces of journalism give us a host of reasons that we shouldn't fear. Heck, even The Onion has tips for avoiding Ebola, in case you're still worried.
I understand all this and truly don't believe the average American is at risk. And yet ...
And yet I've seen the news montages in the movies, you guys! 12 Monkeys. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. World War Z. Shaun of the Dead. Dawn of the Dead. 28 Days Later. Pretty much any zombie movie ever. These movies all start with news reports explaining how the world descended into flesh-chomping chaos. They're usually innocent at first, maybe a little eyebrow-raising but not overtly terrifying. But then they escalate to a horrifying cataclysm that leaves the world a shattered, shambling wasteland.
And I've got to be honest, when I see the steady trickle of Ebola news — It's in the U.S.! We're sending more troops! Look out, Spain! — it does seem a little cinematic. Below are actual headlines from the last week or so.
Be honest. Doesn't this steady stream of terrible news seems a tiny bit like the early part of the news report montage in a disease outbreak movie, like so?
The culprit is in part, of course, the media and their fear appeals. Scary stories get you to tune in and keep you coming back to see how much worse things have gotten. Heavy exposure to "scary" news stories can cultivate skewed audience beliefs that the world is a scarier place than it actually is. (In fact, cultivation theory could even help explain why a heavy viewer of zombie movies makes the link between media in the films and the worst-case scenario in real-world reporting.) And in extreme situations, fear-based media can be used as a form of social control of the public.
So in the end, we're seeing stories about a serious issue reported through the lens of a media desperate for audience numbers. It doesn't mean we're headed into a pandemic of cinematic proportions — even if it feels a little like it to zombie fans.