Outbreak or Epidemic? How Obama's Language Choice Transformed the Ebola Outbreak into an Epidemic

Anat Gesser-Edelsburg, Yaffa Shir-Raz, Oshrat Sassoni Bar-Lev, James J. James, Manfred S. Green

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Objective Our aim was to examine in what terms leading newspapers' online sites described the current Ebola crisis. Methods We employed a quantitative content analysis of terms attributed to Ebola. We found and analyzed 582 articles published between March 23 and September 30, 2014, on the online websites of 3 newspapers: The New York Times, Daily Mail, and Ynet. Our theoretical framework drew from the fields of health communication and emerging infectious disease communication, including such concepts as framing media literacy, risk signatures, and mental models. Results We found that outbreak and epidemic were used interchangeably in the articles. From September 16, 2014, onward, epidemic predominated, corresponding to when President Barack Obama explicitly referred to Ebola as an epidemic. Prior to Obama's speech, 86.8% of the articles (323) used the term outbreak and only 8.6% (32) used the term epidemic. Subsequently, both terms were used almost the same amount: 53.8% of the articles (113) used the term outbreak and 53.3% (112) used the term epidemic. Conclusions Effective communication is crucial during public health emergencies such as Ebola, because language framing affects the decision-making process of social judgments and actions. The choice of one term (outbreak) over another (epidemic) can create different conceptualizations of the disease, thereby influencing the risk signature. (Disaster Med Public Health Preparedness. 2016;10:669-673).

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)669-673
Number of pages5
JournalDisaster Medicine and Public Health Preparedness
Issue number4
StatePublished - 1 Aug 2016

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
Copyright © Society for Disaster Medicine and Public Health, Inc. 2016.


  • EID communication
  • Ebola
  • content analysis
  • framing affect
  • outbreak and epidemic

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health


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