Ever wonder what it’s like to be in the middle of a controversy or at ground zero of a major news event? We hear stories of people rushing out of a burning establishment and many of the dead being trampled by those trying to save their own lives.
Who starts the frenzy? Is it the person who lit the match or the individuals who create chaos by amping up an already dangerous situation with pushing and yelling and screaming?
Well, I am experiencing that trauma firsthand as a resident of the building where Dr. Craig Spencer, the now confirmed first case of Ebola in New York City, also lives. On Thursday at 5:45 p.m., nothing in my life was out of the ordinary. Then I received a call from a friend who had organized an event that was supposed to take place at my apartment.
“There are news trucks all outside your building,” I was informed. “They are covering the case of the guy with Ebola.” (This was news to me.)
“I’m going to have to change the location.”
“OK, fine, I understand,” I answered.
What came next shocked me. I was being uninvited to the event because if people found out what building I lived in, that would make everyone feel uncomfortable. I was floored, so stunned that I did not even have a response.
It didn’t take long for the entrance to our building to be bombarded by the media, who were trying to elicit any nugget of information about the doctor and his girlfriend, and asking if tenants felt safe. I was even asked if I felt we needed to be quarantined.
I have seen this type of frenzy before. As someone who began her career in the newsrooms of CBS in Chicago, I understand the need to get the story. It is important to cover an event that is taking place in the moment, and especially one that is affecting our city and the world. I know all this to be true.
My concern is when the media amp up the energy so that they forget to educate, inform and calm. I believe that it is imperative not only to follow the action to heighten people’s awareness but also to balance it with information and education so that people do not freak out.
As someone asked me yesterday, “Well, if there is nothing to be concerned about, then why are they outside?” And that is just it. This question is the result of the heightened and repetitive reporting that elicits concern and increases anxiety, fear and panic.
People begin to wonder, “Maybe there is something I should be fearing.” I think there is a responsibility by the media, and all of us, to educate ourselves and not fall prey to hysteria. Ebola is transmitted by contact with bodily fluids, not by living in the same apartment building as someone with the virus.
We live in a country with an amazing governmental and health infrastructure. What does this mean? It means that our government is able to centralize and mobilize communication, disseminate appropriate information and address needs with the funding necessary to establish protocols and course-correct quickly. I have been amazed at how quickly the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Department of Homeland Security and other agencies have cooperated and created plans, processes and systems within a matter of hours or days.
The CDC is doing a great job updating its website with information that people need to know to stay safe.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that we should not be concerned. I am saying that our media and we as individuals need to have a concern that is based on accurate information, a practical look at the overall facts, continued education about the disease and an understanding that Ebola in America is not an epidemic. We need a healthy balance of event reporting and education.
No one in our building has been contacted by the CDC. We are not being quarantined as far as I know. We have received information cards from the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. However, the news trucks, reporters and police are all still in front of the building as of this morning. Are they really going to get new questions answered? Or are they beating a drum of hyperalertness that continues to stimulate the sense of crisis and manifest the energy that causes fear and panic?
I am experiencing firsthand how the barrage of hype is creating concern and even ostracism. The manifestation of fear has to be stopped because my concern is that once a collective fear in the populace takes over, it is very difficult to redirect people’s thinking.
Michele Wilson has more than 15 years’ experience developing and producing talk, news and reality shows and working in the digital space for companies including Discovery, Fox, NBC, Paramount Pictures, BET, HBO, MTV and VH1. She began in the newsroom of CBS-WBBM in Chicago, which propelled her to The Oprah Winfrey Show. She is currently producer of The Root Live: Bring It to the Table.