Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Public Health

Comparing “Insider” and “Outsider” News Coverage of the 2014 Ebola Outbreak

Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Public Health

Comparing “Insider” and “Outsider” News Coverage of the 2014 Ebola Outbreak

Article excerpt

The recent Ebola outbreak in West Africa officially began in March 2014.1 The Ebola virus is one of four subtypes of the virus family Filoviridae.2 The Ebola virus is highly transmissible through direct contact with the blood or bodily fluids of an infected person, and Ebola virus disease has an average mortality rate of 50%.2 There is no vaccine, meaning that health care workers can only treat symptoms, which include sore throat, headache, muscle pain, fatigue and fever, followed by rash, diarrhoea, vomiting, impaired kidney and liver function, and internal and external bleeding.2 A total of 15 261 cases of Ebola were confirmed by laboratories in 10 countries. This outbreak,3 the largest since the Ebola virus was discovered in 1976,1 attracted significant media attention.4,5

Studies have explored coverage of the 2014 Ebola outbreak in media outlets such as Twitter,6 Google,4 YouTube7 and print news media.5,8 In a quantitative analysis of 301 articles published in three leading US newspapers, the most common topic was cases in the United States (39.0%), followed by the outbreak in West Africa (33.6%).5 In contrast, in a quantitative analysis of 1625 articles published in four leading newspapers in Nigeria, the most common topic was Ebola cases in Nigeria (17.5%), followed by discrimination due to Ebola (10.8%).8 These studies suggest a variation in representations of the Ebola outbreak based on the location of the news source; however, we have little information on the content of the articles they used as their data.

Several theoretical frameworks are relevant to analyze media coverage of a disease outbreak.9-11 Among them is framing theory, which suggests that how media frame (or present) an issue can influence people's perceptions of this topic and subsequently their attitudes and behaviours.9 As evidenced by previous infectious disease outbreaks,12,13 information provided by media has the potential to affect actions taken (or not) by different societal actors to safeguard public health. For this reason, it is important to understand variation in media representations of disease outbreaks: if one dimension is emphasized at the expense of others, then key actions might be neglected.

A second salient theoretical approach emerges from scholarship on risk. In their coverage of an outbreak, news media both create and convey images that shape public perception of the infectious disease and its risks.14 This means that the risks associated with a disease cannot solely be construed as biological threats independent of social context, because what gets reported depends on the political, economic and social environment.12,15

Our study analyzed how media coverage of the Ebola outbreak in 2014 varied by geographic location, examining articles from one news outlet operating in a country affected by the outbreak and one operating in a country not directly affected. To our knowledge, no similarly comparative study of reporting on Ebola has yet been conducted. Our results show that the "outsider" source primarily framed the outbreak in terms of national security and national interests, as well as presenting it as an international humanitarian crisis. In contrast, the "insider" source framed the outbreak almost exclusively in terms of public health.


Research design

We conducted a qualitative content analysis of newspaper articles,16 an approach that has been used to study media reporting on cancer,17 sexual health,18 vaccination19 and infectious disease outbreaks.14 We chose this exploratory method in order to generate a broad description of news coverage of the Ebola outbreak.16

Article selection

Data were gathered from two print newspapers comparable in their place in the national media landscape. Printed newspapers were chosen because they are important sources of information at individual and institutional levels. Practically, however, the sources had to be available online with indexed archives. …

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