The Image and the Outbreak: An Epidemiological Approach to Visual, Textual and Content Analysis of a Photomicrograph of the Ebola Virus as Presented to Digital Audiences Across Multiple Genres and Cultures During a Global Health Crisis
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In this dissertation I analyze risk communication during the Ebola outbreak of 2014 through a lens of epidemiology. The epidemiological framework allowed me to follow communication events across genres, and over time and circumstance. My research represents a novel approach to monitor risk conversations during a global health crisis by tracking the viral spread of communication coincident with the actual spread of Ebola Virus Disease (EVD). During the 2014 Ebola outbreak, fear, uncertainty and the transmission of Ebola on U.S. soil created an unprecedented level of digital interest and communication about Ebola. Recognizing that the rampant spread of information was not unlike the epidemic spread of EVD, I applied an epidemiological framework to explore a specific corpus of EVD communication events, all related by the common use of a single microscopic image of Ebola. After demonstrating that the photomicrograph acted as a genre, time and culturally independent artifact, I used technical communication research tools and methods to conduct a content, textual and visual analysis of the microscopic image and its accompanying context as each traversed the digital host. My results showed that while the microscopic image of Ebola remained relatively stable and fixed in the digital host environments, the communication events and corresponding themes were greatly transformed as the communication outbreak spread. Risk communication themes evolved along a continuum from fact to fiction dependent on the specificity of the genre and author/audience relationship. My results further showed that conversations within specific genre groups were unidirectional and that there were missed opportunities for authoritative agencies to directly respond to localized risk conversations and possibly contain the spread of misinformation about EVD. My research focuses on risk messages as a pathway to specific genre populations and presents a new perspective for audience/author duality within genre communities. I reveal how distinct newsworthy events resulted in very different message content across multiple, digital genre populations. I demonstrate a method that can trace the evolution of a specific risk message along a continuum from objectivity through subjectivity and ultimately fear-based bias. The results are specific to the Ebola outbreak of 2014, but I have presented a methodology and framework that can be applied to other public health and risk communication crises. The epidemiological approach that I present in this dissertation can be repeated across multiple study designs and represents a new perspective for data relationships and data collection within technical communication research, practice and pedagogy.