It’s Ebola! Run for your Life! How can journalists do better when covering dangerous diseases?

This article by Vox discussed some of the ways in which the ebola outbreak was covered, and ways that journalists can do better when covering the outbreak of a dangerous infectious disease. During this time there were varying reports of the severity and dangerousness of ebola, which ultimately helped to spread fear among everyday Americans. Many of the news stories coming out were inaccurate and contained unethical information. This lead many journalists to question themselves and their colleagues as to what went wrong when reporting on such a difficult subject matter. The article lists 5 ways where the reporting on the ebola outbreak was inadequate.

Of the reasons listed in the article which ones did you think were most important to keep in mind when reporting on an event such as the ebola outbreak? Which reasons are the least important and why? What can journalists do to make sure that when the next dangerous infectious disease outbreak occurs they do not make the same mistakes again? Much of this line of thinking also applies to the general public who consume the news. With our knowledge of journalism and news what tips would you have given someone when they are watching and listening to the coverage of the ebola outbreak? How would you explain to this person what news to pay attention to and what news to be skeptical about?


7 Responses to “It’s Ebola! Run for your Life! How can journalists do better when covering dangerous diseases?”

  1. I read a short story by Ray Bradbury a few months ago; in it, there was a man who always waited a week before reading the newspaper. He would go every week to pick up the previous week’s paper. He did this because it prevented him from acting rashly to breaking news. Your blog post reminded me of this character.
    I strongly remember people freaking out about the Americans who contracted Ebola. Following the Ebola coverage, I personally didn’t know who to trust, or how to know how bad the spread was really getting. Statistics that show the rarity of the disease in this article are actually enlightening. I think the most important thing about reporting on diseases is working very hard to prevent exaggeration, and doing your very best to tell the truth about a given illness, even if the truth isn’t yet known by scientists. I would argue that it isn’t a journalist’s job to protect the public from news they might find scary but to report the truth and do it faithfully.
    I feel that stories like this are one of the downsides of our 24/7 news cycle- we’re being thrown information so quickly that we jump to conclusions.

  2. I thought an interesting point in the Vox article was the ethical dilemma posed my using personal stories. On one hand, it is poor journalistic practice, and arguably immoral, to dehumanize a story (about people dying) by overusing stats. On the other hand, reporting about these peoples medical history, life stories, and current pain and suffering could also be unethical. I’m curious to know how some of the “good” examples mentioned in the article struck a proper balance. I can only imagine it would be difficult to get consent in a chaotic pandemic environment. Nevertheless, walking that fine line seems to be the heart of a journalist’s job.

  3. The major mistakes committed were reporting about ebola in such a way that it inspired excessive fear rather than compassion for its African and western victims. I think the methods provided to improve media coverage on epidemics that were most useful were how to effectively cover uncertainties in science about such epidemics, and how to calm people down through journalism. Journalists need to be able to translate the science behind these diseases into a quick need to know guide for news consumers in such a way that does not exaggerate or understate the effect of such a disease. Knowing how to describe uncertainties is certainly useful in this pursuit.

    I think there is a place for stories that describe the statistics associated with ebola that do not incorporate a human factor, however as suggested by Vox, these stories shouldn’t be the only ones covering ebola. Stories describing statistics are useful for people who want to know the straight facts about the epidemic and as such these statistics need to be reported faithfully. As we’ve seen before in class, stories become much more potent if they describe the lives of affected individuals. However, journalists definitely should not have reported on ebola victims without obtaining their consent. I agree with Jacob that consent would be difficult in the chaotic environment of hospitals dealing with ebola though.

  4. I remember the fear that came with Ebola coverage. I also remember thinking to myself when it was happening that Americans really had nothing to worry about. It feels like I am getting so used to the media constantly blowing things out of proportion that I no longer have faith in anything that’s reported in an excited fashion. In fact, I often feel persuaded to believe exactly the opposite. It reminds me of the boy who cried wolf. If the media keeps milking the fear element in every story and then later scolding themselves for being wrong, who’s going to believe them when a story comes along that really does matter? One where it’s important that our fear move use to action. What about the people like me who feel desensitized?

    I think it’s a good think that Vox published this piece looking back on the flaws in coverage. The author brings up some really great points, and I hope that a good amount of people have read the article. I am left with a certain feeling in my stomach though that writing articles like this one, although certainly affecting to a number of people, will not be an answer to begin a process of change in the way journalists misuse the fear response in their craft. I wonder what would have a broad enough effect to make that shift?

  5. It was really interesting reading this reflective article, because at the time of the Ebola media frenzy last year I remember feeling very frustrated in the way it was covered. I was in a Public Health class at the time, and my professors and those at the School of Public Health were also frustrated at all the media attention Ebola in the United States was getting, when it really wasn’t much of a threat in the United States. It 1. took away attention from the tragedy in Africa and 2. misled the public about what they should be afraid of. Not to mention the fact that there are many diseases killing Americans every day people don’t want to talk about.

    During the week of peak Ebola fear, I came into my public health class with this photo on the screen:

    I though a lot of satire pieces during the time actually did a better job of showing what we should, in the U.S. fear regarding Ebola, than traditional news coverage.

    I think the most important things to keep in mind when covering a disease, or something very scientific in nature it to be accurate. Tell people how the disease is contracted. Ebola is harder to contract than the Flu. Tell people why it spread so widely in Africa, and what is different in the United States. Also, the story was in Africa. Therefore the coverage should have been vastly about what was going on in Sierra Leone and the rest of Africa. I think there was a lot of things to improve upon after Ebola’s media coverage, and the Vox article touched on many of them. I think that main ones are accuracy, and putting the issue in perspective.

  6. One aspect that struck me about the Vox article was how for journalists to cover this story from the epicenter of where it was taking place it put their own lives in danger and many even the most bold did not take this risk. Is the american-ebola story that pervaded the media a result of no journalists willing to take the risk?

    Attributing your sources is essential to an article and good journalism. Without journalists willing to take the risk to travel to west africa, how much does this contribute to the poor emphasis in the media on the true epicenter of the breakout. How much does what is safe and local dictate the way in which the media tells a story?

  7. I think the most detrimental mistake that reporters made while covering the Ebola outbreak (as described in this article) was not putting the science in context/ not taking the time to fully understand the science. As we discussed in the “Scientists v. Journalists” class, it is very difficult for a journalist to accurately translate into layman’s terms complex and ever-fluctuating scientific discoveries. In the case of Ebola coverage, it was extremely important to put this science in context because it did create unnecessary fear and made people focus on their own potential danger as opposed to the people in West Africa who were directly affected and needed the world on their side.

    On a similar note, I think it is very important to include the stories of the people affected, because people/ characters are what MAKE a story. Statistics come across as empty numbers, but people give stories heart and make them relevant. I think the ethical way to include West Africans’ stories about Ebola would be to ask them if they were comfortable having their names/stories included. They should be treated with the same respect and dignity as sources from the United States.

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