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Dietram A. Scheufele

Dietram A. Scheufele

News coverage of the Ebola outbreak this week entered a “perfect storm” that spun the issue out of proportion, says UW-Madison professor of science communication Dietram A. Scheufele.

The flurry of news stories this week – the death of the first person diagnosed with Ebola in the United States, the imposition of airport screening of passengers from Ebola-afflicted countries in West Africa, the euthanizing in Spain of the pet dog of a nurse who died from the disease -- became the "perfect storm of pseudo and real events" that triggered even more coverage, Scheufele told NPR for story posted Thursday.

What ends up happening, Scheufele said, is that "fairly harmless isolated events" come together and form the appearance of a larger pattern of an epidemic.

Scheufele, whose research focuses on the role that social media and other emerging modes of communication play in society, also talked with New York Magazine about how social media fans the flames of panic around the Ebola outbreak.

Exaggeration of the dangers posed by the disease threatens to strain the U.S. health-care system with hypochondriacs at a time when that’s least desirable, the magazine article asserts.

And the growth of social media as an important source of health news makes that risk larger that it would have been in the past, Scheufele says, even when established health organizations use it, as in the Centers for Disease Control’s live chat on Twitter.

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“The big problem that agencies [like the CDC] have is that they, in most cases, can’t communicate with audiences directly,” he said.

And today, given the erosion in the number of professional reporters immersed in public-health and epidemiology beats, official health news is mediated through fewer competent “middlemen” positioned between experts and mainstream audiences, Scheufele said.

The “news” about Ebola keeps coming. Google News was tracking thousands of articles Friday, and by midday, Twitter posts at #Ebola were at about 40 per minute and counting.