Today’s release looks at the level of concern about Ebola amongst New Jersey residents. The outbreak, which claimed its first victim on U.S. soil today, does have New Jerseyans concerned – 69 percent are at least somewhat concerned about the potential for a large outbreak in the U.S. More interestingly perhaps, those who are paying the most attention to news accounts of the story are the most likely to hold key misperceptions about the virus. Paying closer attention means being less aware that Ebola is difficult to transmit from one person to another and that no one has yet been reported to have caught Ebola in the United States. More attentive residents are also more likely to think there is an effective treatment for the virus. They are also much more likely than those paying little attention to believe Ebola has become a more serious concern recently, rather than just being covered more carefully by the media.
These results should give pause. Many people count on the media to provide information, but the evidence here is that this is not happening very effectively. As noted in the release below, it is very likely that the hysterical tone of the wall-to-wall coverage of the disease is a reason. It may be worth keeping in mind as horrible as it is, Ebola pales in terms of its likelihood of killing Americans to things like the flu, which over the past 30 years has killed as many as 49,000 Americans in one year.
The full text of the release is below. Click here for a PDF with text, questions, and tables.
NEW JERSEYANS CONCERNED ABOUT POSSIBILITY OF U.S. EBOLA OUTBREAK
Those paying more attention are less knowledgeable about Ebola risks
NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. – As the deadly Ebola hemorrhagic fever continues to rage in West Africa, 69 percent of New Jersey residents are at least somewhat concerned about the possibility of an outbreak in the United States, according to the latest Rutgers-Eagleton Poll. More than one-third of residents are paying “very close” attention to Ebola news, while an additional 40 percent are following the story “somewhat closely.”
Despite extensive media coverage of the crisis, however, New Jerseyans are uncertain about Ebola’s transmission and treatment. Public health officials explain that Ebola is far less contagious than measles or influenza, but 67 percent of residents believe the virus is relatively easily transmitted, the survey finds. And while there is no cure with patients primarily treated for their symptoms, 39 percent think there is a medicine effective against Ebola, while 40 percent know there is none; another 21 percent are unsure.
Also, uncertainty about whether anyone hospitalized for Ebola in the U.S. actually caught the virus here is high: 42 percent think the virus has been transmitted on American soil, while 45 percent say, correctly, that this is not the case.
Misperceptions about Ebola are greatest among New Jerseyans paying the most attention, the poll discovers. Those most focused on the news are more than twice as likely as the least attentive residents to think there is an effective medicine, and 13 points more likely to think the virus spreads relatively easily.
Greater attention to the news is also related to stronger concern about a U.S. outbreak. Seventy-six percent of residents following Ebola news very closely are at least somewhat concerned that an outbreak will happen here, compared to 60 percent of those paying relatively little attention. .
“As in national polls, Garden Staters are worried about Ebola, but many do not know basic facts,” said David Redlawsk, director of the Eagleton Center for Public Interest Polling and professor of political science at Rutgers University. “Within the countless hours of media coverage, some hysterical voices are feeding perceptions that Ebola is a huge threat to the U.S. But, so far it is not even close to the threat of death from the flu, which statistics show kills from 3,000 to 49,000 Americans every year.”
Results are from a statewide poll of 842 New Jerseyans contacted by live callers on both landlines and cell phones from Sept. 29 to Oct. 5, 2014, with a margin of error of +/- 4.4 percentage points. Some questions included in the poll were inspired by a recent nationwide poll by the Harvard School of Public Health.
Concern about Ebola varies across groups
Only 31 percent of respondents say they are not at all concerned about an Ebola outbreak in the U.S., but some groups are more worried than others. Women are 10 points more likely than men to be concerned, and nonwhites are 19 points more concerned than whites. Levels of concern are significantly higher among those with lower incomes and less education.
Recognizing that Ebola is relatively difficult to transmit reduces concern about an outbreak. Just 13 percent of residents who know the virus is not easily spread are very concerned, but 53 percent of those who think it is highly contagious express high levels of concern.
“Concern is greatest when people are least certain about risks,” noted Redlawsk. “Ebola is particularly scary, with no cure and a high death rate. Believing it is easily spread feeds this fear.”
Increased news consumption does not lead to accuracy
Residents interviewed after the Sept. 30 announcement by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) of the first U.S.-diagnosed Ebola case in Texas were more likely to be following the news very closely, compared to those interviewed before the announcement. But paying attention to news about Ebola does not necessarily improve New Jerseyans’ knowledge of basic facts: 48 percent of the most attentive incorrectly think there is an effective medicine for Ebola. Only 20 percent of those not following the story closely say the same.
Increased news consumption is related to thinking someone has already caught Ebola in the U.S., with residents paying the most attention nine points more likely to think so than those paying little attention. Ebola news watchers are also the most likely to think the virus spreads very easily.
Moreover, news consumption may be driving fear in another way: while 22 percent of those paying the least attention think Ebola has become a more serious threat recently, 55 percent of residents watching very closely say the virus has become a greater threat.
“Paying careful attention to news coverage about Ebola may not be a good idea,” said Ashley Koning, manager of the Rutgers-Eagleton Poll. “The tone of the coverage seems to be increasing fear while not improving understanding. And today’s tragic death of the Ebola patient in Texas may well add to people’s worries as the media doubles down on covering the story.”
As an example, Koning pointed to the increase in misperceptions among respondents interviewed following the CDC announcement, noting that, “After the announcement, we saw a 10-point increase in thinking there is an effective treatment, and a 12-point increase in thinking someone actually caught Ebola in the U.S. However, in contrast, there was an 11-point decline in the incorrect belief that Ebola is easily spread. Some accurate information may be getting through the noise, but not enough.”
Some groups appear more likely than others to hold misperceptions about Ebola: 73 percent of women think the disease is easily spread compared to 60 percent of mem. Millennials – those under 30 – are more than 10 points more likely than older residents to think Ebola is easily spread.
Middle-age residents are most likely to believe a treatment exists, while younger residents are least likely to believe this, the research finds. Republicans are nine points more likely than Democrats to think there is a viable treatment for the disease.
Nonwhites are 10 points more likely than whites to say someone in the U.S. caught Ebola while in this country, and 10 points more likely to think the disease is very easily spread.
News consumption differs by key groups and announcement of first U.S. case
While most New Jerseyans are paying at least some attention to Ebola, residents interviewed after the CDC announcement were 11 points more likely to say they were following the story very closely than those interviewed earlier. There also are notable differences in who is paying attention. Republicans are 12 points more likely than Democrats and independents to be following Ebola news very closely. While 82 percent of white residents are following the story at least somewhat closely, this drops to 68 percent among nonwhites.
News consumption steadily increases with age: 22 percent of millennials are following the media reports very closely, compared to 49 percent of seniors. Attention also rises with income and education: residents with household incomes over $100,000 are 20 points more likely than those making less than $50,000 to be following the story at least somewhat.