This week, one of the segments of On the Media covers the controversy of the Anti-vaccination movement after reports of over 100 people infected with the Measles across 14 US states. This Measles outbreak is the biggest we’ve had in years and it all stems back to an article written 12 years ago by British conman, Andrew Wakefield, which made false claims linking the MMR vaccine (Measles, Mumples, Rubella) and Autism. Parents became rightly fearful for the safety of their children, not knowing that the claims linking the vaccine to autism were flat out wrong. Now, unvaccinated kids are not only at risk of contracting the diseases, but also spreading them to others which immediately makes this a national public health issue. Bob Garfield from On the Media remarks that the media is to blame for not only creating this anti-vaccination fear and paranoia, but also capitalizing on it. Due to the media’s inability to check their facts before releasing the story, the damage had already been done by the time people realized Wakefield’s claims were fraudulent. The media tends to exaggerate controversial issues because it garners the most public attention. As Bob Garfield notes, the anti-vaccination movement originally existed as an obscure, underground internet subculture. It wasn’t until the media’s vast exposure of the issue that gave it the “lethal credibility” that sparked this wide spread hysteria and fear.
Several similarities can be drawn between the Measles outbreak and the recent Ebola epidemic, which began with one case in NYC and ignited a media firestorm. Personally, I felt the media made it seem as if Ebola would be Armageddon or the end of mankind as we know it just based on the fact that it was all any major news outlet talked about. It was not only the frequency of media coverage, but also the urgency of it as well. Although I am in no way denying the dangers and fatality of Ebola, it is true that the media and politicians have used these health issues as opportunities to partake in a “moral crusade”, capitalizing on the situation to personally benefit in some way. The pattern is typically the same: Something emerges that threatens the social order, the Media exaggerates and distorts the facts, blowing it way out of proportion so that it creates “moral panic” and wide spread hysteria. Politicians are obviously at fault for fueling the fire, even manufacturing such fears for political/financial gain. As last week’s On the Media discussed, turning public fear into political action is a convenient chance for politicians to appear like leaders. Following the US’s first Ebola diagnosis, politicians used the health issue (distorted by the media) to appeal to the public and make public health policies, in service of their own agenda.
As Bob Garfield points out, “When the media frames such idiocy as one side of a debate, they are not only legitimizing ignorance and demagoguery, they are threatening the lives of children.” It is quite unsettling that the mass hysteria of the Measles outbreak began with someone not checking their facts for accuracy. But as Garfield remarked earlier in the segment, media doesn’t always care if the facts are accurate, they only care if the story will sell. And because of this ignorance and willful misinformation, the lives of innocent children are now in jeopardy.