Don't Let Media-Fueled Fear Keep You From Traveling

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With constant reports of violence, disease outbreaks, and natural disasters, it is no surprise that many travelers are left wondering if it is really worth the risk of visiting the world’s most exotic places.

In reality, the media is often to blame for many of the negative perceptions we maintain about various parts of world due to a strategy known as fear mongering. Through tactics such as exaggeration and repetition, mainstream news outlets deliberately play on emotions to draw attention from the masses.

Dr. Randall Bytwerk, a professor of communication arts and sciences (CAS) at Calvin College who has taught and researched oral rhetoric and propaganda, spoke with BTRtoday about the media’s promulgation of fear.

“Vividness lodges in our memory, and leads us to overestimate the incidence of startling happenings,” Bytwerk says. “The New York Times would not last long if it printed a list of uneventful flights each day.”

For example, stating that a plane arrived safely in Sydney after a long flight from Los Angeles won’t keep anyone glued to the TV, but constant terror alerts will. As a result, people engage in excessive, biased news programs instead of hearing a diverse array of stories from reliable sources.

Bytwerk also cites the cruise ship Diamond Princess, which recently received heavy press coverage after 158 passengers fell ill with Norovirus. Out of a total of 4,000 people on board, he notes, that comes out to only about four percent who got sick, but it will still make many travelers nervous about cruising.

On the contrary, how many of these fearful homebodies will seek out information on food poisoning at local restaurants and stop going there as a result? In such instances, we are simply afraid of the unknown and unfamiliar.

To better understand the discrepancies between the media’s portrayal of the Ebola outbreak and the reality of living near infected areas, BTRtoday spoke with several sources who lived in Africa at the time.

The Ebola outbreak began in the Forest region of Guinea, in a town called Gueckedou. In March of 2014, the disease was confirmed as Ebola, and the virus spread rapidly.

Even though Guinea is located in West Africa, people worldwide still assigned negative connotations to an entire continent.

Jensen Daniel was living only 562 kilometers away from Gueckedou, in a sub-prefecture of Labe called Kouramangui, while serving in the Peace Corps. Even being situated this close to the origin of the disease, there were no reported cases of Ebola in the Labe prefecture.

“I felt safe living in Guinea,” Daniel recalls. “Life for me and my fellow volunteers remained largely unchanged. We continued working and living with our host communities, and received periodic updates and statistics on the outbreak from our medical officers.”

Daniel remained in Guinea from his initial arrival in December, 2013, until Peace Corps volunteers were evacuated in July, 2014.

He says that leaving his community was the biggest challenge he faced, as he had just begun making friends, finding work partners, learning Pular (the local language), and beginning projects.

“What still stings the most is a comment made by a vaccinator at my health center,” Daniel says. “When I told him and my host family that Peace Corps would be removing us from Guinea, and I cited Ebola as the reason, he said something along the lines of, ‘But what about us? We will be here. You have to stay. We will face Ebola together.’”

Daniel kept in touch with his host family, friends, and work colleagues, and he was committed to returning to West Africa as soon as possible. Sure enough, he is currently serving in Senegal.

An anonymous source, referred to here as Marie, told BTRtoday that during the peak of the outbreak, she was living in Senegal, which shares a border with Guinea. During the entire epidemic, only one case of Ebola ever occurred in Senegal: a man who had traveled from Guinea to get to his family on the other side of the border.

As a result, Senegal sealed their border with Guinea and developed a behavior change campaign on the symptoms and how to prevent the disease through local radio and television commercials. At the local health centers there were posters about the virus, new hand-washing stations appeared, and there were more health talks about disease prevention.

Major Western news sources began covering the Ebola outbreak only once the virus hit American soil. By this point, however, the death toll had already reached the thousands.

Many of these outlets portrayed Ebola as an African disease and highlighted how it was up to the West to save them, neglecting the heroic sacrifices made by hundreds of African healthcare workers and all the precautionary measures that were already implemented.

“This rhetoric perpetuated the toxic perception–the general stereotype–of Africa as a disease-ridden, poverty-stricken, desolate continent full of dark, damaged, quasi-people in need,” Daniel laments.

Rejecting this status quo, TIME magazine highlighted the “Ebola fighters” as their 2014 person of the year.

As the media blew the story up, unnecessary fear took hold amongst Americans.

Daniel recalls the example of when a fellow volunteer returned home and her dentist refused to see her for a checkup because she had recently been in Guinea.

Travel agencies reported travelers canceling trips to Madagascar, an island country thousands of miles from the Ebola-affected countries, due to fears of catching the disease.

Meanwhile, two Senegalese boys were beaten up in school in New York City because they had traveled home to Senegal over the Christmas holidays.

This fear was not present in those located in near infected areas. People simply went on with their lives and took the necessary precautions.

Such precautions included: practicing meticulous hygiene and sanitation practices by washing hands with bleach water or antibacterial gel, avoiding sick and dying people (as if that wasn’t obvious), not shaking hands or touching others (even when they are not visibly ill), being attentive with food and beverage preparation, temperature checks, having stock of personal medications, and avoiding public transportation as much as possible.

Media portrayal also continuously spread misinformation regarding how people could contract the disease.

“The virus itself is not a death sentence,” adds Daniel. “With proper care, a patient can survive, and these survival statistics were often not reported in the sensationalist media. The death toll was so high largely due, in part, to the weak health infrastructures in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone.”

Caitlin Loehr took a position supporting the Liberia country office of Population Services International in December 2014, when only a few Ebola cases remained. By this point, the international press had moved on from the Ebola outbreak since it was waning in the affected countries.

“I realized that even though the number of cases were very low at the time, Ebola was still affecting the country, and I was a bit disheartened that the secondary effects of Ebola were not being covered at all by the international media,” Loehr says.

Loehr is retuning to Liberia in a few weeks to help out with a radio program that the Johns Hopkins Center for Communication Programs is launching there for community health workers. She exclaims that she is looking forward to going back and seeing how things have changed and progressed in the past year.

Even after experiencing the Ebola epidemic, BTRtoday’s sources advocate living in and traveling to West Africa.

“When I think of West Africa, I don’t think of the Ebola outbreak and all the sadness and fear that went with it,” Marie says. “Instead I remember sitting around a bowl of delicious food with my host family, joking around and talking about our days, or I think of all the impromptu dance parties, with older women drumming on plastic jugs as kids and adults clap and screech with laughter, rhythmically pounding their feet into the dusty ground. This is the side of West Africa that I want people to see and know.”

Of course, it is important to stay informed and take necessary precautions when traveling. Both the Center for Disease Control and Prevention and State Department websites are credible sources that offer updates for travelers regarding current health issues in specific destinations and provide the tools people need to prevent such health risks. A travel clinic can also provide valuable information regarding health risks and verify that travelers receive the right vaccinations.

Instead of worrying about what could go wrong when traveling to a foreign country, Jensen advises to focus on the music you’ll hear, the food you’ll eat, the adventures you’ll have, and the people you’ll meet.