Ebola the Enemy: How the U.S. Media Militarized the 2014 Ebola Epidemic

Sarah Gaylen Chamness


The 2014 Ebola outbreak shocked the world. The scale of the tragedy in western Africa was surprising. But equally surprising was the intensely fearful response of the international public to a disease that most public health experts agreed was unlikely to significantly impact countries with strong healthcare infrastructures. This included the United States, where the intensity of fear with which the American public responded was disproportionate to the actual threat.  Because the outbreak is still a recent event, most research into the American public response has focused on describing the extreme reaction that the epidemic produced, only speculating as to what actually caused the fear.  This paper will demonstrate that the intense fear of Ebola in America had at least one specific cause: the militarized language that the American media used to describe the disease. Because of the media’s use of military terms and descriptions, the American people were inclined to view Ebola more as a military enemy than as a medical one, and they largely reacted with three types of responses associated with the threat of war: fear, isolationism, and aggression. Their fear was furthered by the media’s tendency to question the decisions of the Center for Disease Control, causing the American public to lose trust in this organization and become reluctant to send aid to Africa, although many public health officials agreed that aid was necessary to stop the epidemic. This paper analyses news articles, video clips, and social media comments from August 2014 through January 2015 to reveal that the media’s irresponsible use of military language when discussing the epidemic helped cause the unhelpful panic among American citizens. It argues that a humanitarian response characterized by increased funding and aid to the affected countries would have been more effective in both controlling the Ebola outbreak and keeping America safe.


Ebola; 2014 outbreak; Media

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