Look at this actual Fox News poll. Bathe in it. Luxuriate in its threat inflation, in the implication that ISIS and Ebola are somehow comparable, that Americans are beset by terrifying dangers, and that the correct answer — "neither" — is not even worth including:
It can be easy to pick on Fox News, but the truth is that this poll is basically representative of the way in which the national media — or, at least, its televised species — has been over-inflating the threats to Americans in these two stories, to a degree that could have real and damaging implications for our ability to react rationally as a country.
Obviously there are important reasons to extensively cover ISIS and Ebola, which are hugely important stories and real problems for the United States. Vox has produced many, many articles on both subjects. The point is that it is possible to cover these stories in a way that acknowledges their danger without over-hyping it, but that American media coverage is needlessly exaggerating the threats in a way that isn't just scaring people, but could well push American public opinion in a counterproductive direction.
It's not just this one poll. CNN's Ashleigh Banfield said recently, "All ISIS would need to do is send a few of its suicide killers to Ebola affected zones and then get them on some mass transit, somewhere where they would need to be to affect the most damage." Yep — Ebola-infected ISIS suicide bombers. "What are the chances that illegal immigrants will come over our porous southern border with Ebola," Fox's Chris Wallace ludicrously speculated. The coverage of ISIS has been similarly hyperbolic.
This is already shaping US public opinion. On ISIS, it's making Americans much more hawkish. A Gallup poll found that three-quarters of Americans are following the ISIS story closely. Those Americans are substantially more likely to be favor military action against ISIS — perhaps including the use US ground troops — presumably because they see it as a major threat.
On Ebola, for example, Fox News has repeatedly pushed the idea of a travel ban on people from ebola-stricken countries — a call that some members of Congress have since taken up. That wouldn't actually limit the disease's spread and would do serious harm to the economies of Ebola-affected countries.
Again, this is not to deny that Ebola and ISIS pose real dangers that are worth covering. But it's not just a question of tone around describing the threats; the media often tells only one half of the story, downplaying or ignoring the reasons not to panic, such as US defense systems — a crucial part of the ISIS and Ebola stories that many Americans simply aren't getting.
In a country like the United States with a robust public health system, for example, the risk of Ebola spreading rapidly is vanishingly small. And ISIS has neither the capability nor the immediate intent to strike the American homeland. While one day it very well might, and that's a real problem for American foreign policy, you would not hear that crucial distinction very often on TV. You will also not often hear about the risk that "public hysteria" poses to the United States.
Obviously, media outlets have a certain incentive to focus on threats, and to present what's scary about the news rather than what's not scary about it. Still, they also have a longer-term incentive to ingrain trust in their audience, and that means upholding basic responsibilities to tell the full story. It's not just the right thing to do — a better informed public is in everyone's interests.