Theoretical Background and research questions/hypothesis: The 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa caused wide-spread media coverage by U.S. media. The purpose of our research was to assess the U.S. public’s views on the media’s reporting on Ebola.
Methods: We conducted a survey of 1,018 U.S. adults using a nationally representative Internet panel maintained by GfK Custom Research, LLC . Using five point Likert scales, we measured participants’ confidence in the media’s ability to accurately report on the Ebola outbreak (1-not at all confident to 5-very confident) and level of agreement that the media has exaggerated the seriousness of Ebola (1-strongly disagree-5 to 5-strongly agree). We assessed type of media used to closely follow news about Ebola. We used linear regression to examine the relationship between demographics, media practices, knowledge, perceived threat of Ebola and perceptions of the media’s reporting on the Ebola epidemic.
Results: Fifty-one percent of the sample were female, 38% had a high school education or less, and 74% were white. The overall mean (3.0) for perceptions that the media exaggerated the seriousness of Ebola was higher than the mean (2.53) for confidence in the media’s ability to accurately report on Ebola. After adjusting for gender, age, education, race/ethnicity, income region, knowledge of Ebola, perceived seriousness and likelihood of family being affected by Ebola, and perceived knowledge of Ebola, we found that males (OR=0.59, CI=0.40-0.85, p<.01) and those with a college education or higher (OR=0.56, CI=0.34-0.94, p<.05) were significantly less likely to be confident in the media’s ability to report accurately on Ebola. Those who thought they were knowledgeable about Ebola (1.38; CI = 1.11-1.71, p<.01), and those who closely followed the news from local TV news (OR=2.33, CI = 1.54-3.52, p<.001); national network TV news (OR=2.58, CI = 1.72-3.86, p<.001), and newspapers (OR=2.88, CI=1.80-4.59, p<.001) were more likely to feel confident in the media’s ability to accurately report on the Ebola outbreak. Respondents who looked for information about Ebola on Instagram (OR=60.73, CI=4.55-794.02), YouTube (OR=8.63, CI=1.96-38.03) or Twitter (OR=24.75, CI=3.07-199.46) (p<.01) were significantly more likely to feel confident in the media accurately reporting. Respondents were more likely to agree that the media had exaggerated the seriousness of Ebola if they were Hispanic (OR= 2.34, CI=1.43-3.82, p<.001), had a college degree or higher (OR=1.55, CI=1.04-2.31, p<.01), had higher levels of self-reported knowledge (OR=1.28, CI=1.08-1.52, p<.01), and had looked for information about Ebola on Facebook (p<.05). Only those who had lower perceptions about the seriousness of Ebola were less likely to agree that the media exaggerated the seriousness of Ebola (p<.001).
Conclusions: Closely following Ebola news coverage on national and local TV news and newspapers, and seeking Ebola information through social media channels such as Instagram, Twitter and YouTube (but not Facebook) may affect the public’s perceptions about how the media covers important health topics such as Ebola.
Implications for research and/or practice: Examining the reasons for both confidence in and skepticism about media coverage may help communicators and the media focus how epidemics are covered in the future.