Ebola. That word seems to have started every article for months now. It has prompted outright panic and implementation of extreme measures. For example, a nurse coming back after working in West Africa was forcibly quarantined in terrible conditions at the Newark Airport, even though she showed no symptoms.
As many have repeatedly pointed out, we have very little to worry about. Senegal and Nigeria have both been declared Ebola-free after fear of huge outbreaks in both countries because of their proximity to Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea. If they have no Ebola threat, the U.S. shouldn’t be panicking.
But we are panicking, and here’s why: it’s all about something called the “finite pool of worry.” This is a psychological phenomenon that basically means people only have the capacity to worry about a few things at a time, usually the most immediately threatening issues. So if we all start to worry about some impending doom like the Ebola crisis, our worries about other problems begin to lessen, and pundits are taking advantage of that.
When we buy into the fearmongering over Ebola, we forget about important domestic issues like the budget crisis, environmental degradation and threats to equality. Voters start to worry about things that seem immediate and deadly instead of the long-term concerns that were in the spotlight before these crises emerged.
This is the reality of the 24-hour news cycle. Media can select, fixate on and inflate any issue. The fiscal cliff, the Obamacare rollout “disaster,” the child migrant crisis, ISIS and now the Ebola epidemic are all ways to turn minor worries into impending doom in order to bring the broader issues of the budget, healthcare, immigration and foreign policy to the forefront of discussion to force a policy action.
Some might say that if painting long-term problems into immediate crises is the only way to get policy enacted, then so be it. The problem with this “politics of fear” is that it takes the power of agenda setting away from public opinion and puts it into the hands of politicians and pundits. They get to cherry-pick which issues they want to ignore, even if the voters really care about those issues.
Perhaps this was part of the reason the GOP got an unexpected edge in the midterm elections. Their more hawkish views on foreign policy played into public fear about ISIS and Ebola. Democratic rhetoric on equality for women, the LGBT community and workers just didn’t seem as important. When we buy into the fear that the news cycle inflates, we forget our priorities.
Annie Cappetta is a freshman majoring in political science and ecosystem science and policy.