Analysis: American Outlets Leave out Key Details, Context on Zika Coverage

According to the Center for Disease Control, there is approximately a 1 to 13 percent chance that a pregnant woman infected with the Zika virus will give birth to a child with microcephaly.

Despite the low rate of microcephaly, Zika’s worst-case scenario, and few American cases, cable news networks have portrayed the threat in a very different fashion.

CNN and Fox News reports consistently boast images of a suffering mother holding an infant with an abnormally small head. This kind of image frames the narrative in a way that the reader might expect all pregnant women infected with Zika to give birth to children with microcephaly.

Zika, similar to the recent Ebola scare, was first seen as a disease affecting the developing world, and disproportionately striking the lower class. According to Forbes, it wasn’t until the first American was infected that American news outlets began in-depth coverage of the virus.

The Zika virus provides a myriad of unknown variables that make it ripe for media capitalization. With so much still unconfirmed about the Zika virus, such as the causal relationship to birth defects and the long-term impact on infants born to infected mothers, the media’s approach to coverage has been episodic.

For example, media coverage has framed the virus in stories about the Olympics, the American political system, and reproductive health laws in Latin American countries. Stories have focused on male golfers dropping out of the international games, Marco Rubio’s opinions on abortion for zika-infected women, and the Catholic church’s role in it all.

These are all valid stories, but the quantity of coverage is overblown when compared with the medical reality.

In light of the glaring gaps in public knowledge about the virus, journalists from major American news outlets unfortunately have been vague on reporting about the actual known statistics. Reports about Zika are quick to mention the birth defects and the neurological disorders associated with the virus, but fail to mention the prevalence of such conditions – the rate at which they actually occur.

Specifically, there has been a lack of reporting on the following: 1.) the number of women infected with Zika that actually gave birth to children with birth defects, 2.) the number of those infected with Zika who have developed Guillain-Barré Syndrome (GBS), a disorder associated with the virus where the body’s immune system attacks the nervous system causing paralysis, and 3.) those infected who have had to be hospitalized.

Graphic Credit: Lauren Shiplett/MediaFile

Graphic Credit: Lauren Shiplett/MediaFile

With GBS, recovery is possible – something that cable news reports fail to mention. And even then, however, only a small proportion of people with recent Zika virus infection get GBS. These specifics that have been lacking in reports paint a fearful picture of the reality on the ground.

Context has also been lacking. A CNN report described three Zika related deaths in Venezuela, but failed to mention the role played by the country’s own public health emergency response with their failing hospitals and lack of medical supplies.

Another CNN report featured a misleading title, “Utah resident is first Zika-related death incontinental US,” and admitted that the man was elderly and had a pre-existing condition. Additionally,  Salt Lake City health officials still could not determine whether or not the virus was the cause of death.  

While it is Zika-related, the headline makes it seems as if it were a leading factor.

Likewise, recent stories out of Miami regarding local transmission cases have also missed the mark. Reports failed to mention that none of the people infected with the virus had been hospitalized. Eighty percent of people who are infected with the virus do not exhibit any symptoms, and those who do experience a mild fever, rash, and joint pain.

Zika 2

Graphic Credit: Lauren Shiplett/MediaFile

Latin American news outlets NTN24 and Univision have covered the virus very differently. Their coverage has focused on informing their audience about confirmed cases, official statements from health officials, and updates from the scientific community.  

That being said, Zika isn’t the first mosquito-related illness hitting Latin America. The mosquito that carries the Zika virus, the Aedes Aegypti, is also a carrier for deadlier diseases such as Dengue fever and Chikungunya. Dengue affects 400 million people a year, and can be fatal. In context, Zika it pales in comparison to its two older, nastier cousins.

When the WHO declared a public health emergency, it wasn’t over the virus itself, but for the cluster of microcephaly cases that were linked to the virus. It is not to say there is not a threat – babies born with microcephaly do suffer severe long term consequences. The threat of Zika does indeed exist for pregnant women and couples planning to start a family. With the Olympic question, however, and with the number of athletes who opted out of the Games, the threat may have been overestimated. In essence, this is about misplaced fear. Key reports about the virus have consistently left out important details and context surrounding Zika, affecting American public opinion about the virus.

4 thoughts on “Analysis: American Outlets Leave out Key Details, Context on Zika Coverage”

  1. Adriana Aguirre says:

    Execellent article!

  2. Priya devotta says:

    excellent job , very educational & informative . Keep them coming Karena.

  3. Nsikan Akpan says:

    Great article, but in defense of the media, I would point out that many figures on microcephaly/GBS rates aren’t yet available for the U.S. Also, Puerto Rico just released a data synopsis on GBS last week, and they’ve notched a 2.5-fold increase in GBS cases in 6 months — 31 cases with definitive links to Zika and another 9 with possible ties. No PR stats on microcephaly yet, but Frieden predicts hundreds of cases with this outbreak, which many outlets have reported.

    Same theme applies to the U.S.: There are very few stats available on long-term outcomes for pregnant women. But if you include microcephaly cases plus pregnancy losses, it puts the adverse outcome rate around 4% — and that probably doesn’t account for the bulk of pregnant women with asymptomatic infections, since screening isn’t mandatory.

    Speaking of asymptomatic cases, you write: “Likewise, recent stories out of Miami regarding local transmission cases have also missed the mark. Reports failed to mention that none of the people infected with the virus had been hospitalized. Eighty percent of people who are infected with the virus do not exhibit any symptoms, and those who do experience a mild fever, rash, and joint pain.”

    Hospitalizations wouldn’t be expected with Zika, given the disease is typically mild, so their exclusion in news coverage seems appropriate. Also, the high proportion of asymptomatic cases is, if anything, the most disconcerting aspect of Zika. It makes the disease extremely hard to track and control, akin to West Nile virus, another mosquito-borne disease where the majority of cases don’t show symptoms. The inability to adequately track human cases (as well as avian cases) likely aided the spread of WNV in the U.S. The overall health risk for WNV is low for the general population, but the stakes are high for elderly populations, which experience higher rates of West Nile encephalitis. The same scenario applies to Zika: The general risk is low, but stakes are high for a subpopulation (i.e., pregnant women). I think most news coverage has reflected as much.

    But again, I like this article, and I agree with you: Let’s include more stats in the news! 🙂

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