US news coverage of the contagious disease called “deficient”
By CYRIL IBE and EYOBONG ITA
She knew something was not right. First, the news was about a Liberian who died at a Nigerian airport; later a Guinean student survived in Senegal. But those occurrences did not get much media attention until an American doctor infected in Liberia was flown back to the U.S. for treatment. Thereafter, media focus shifted to statistical updates on the people infected and the countries affected.
Such has been Dr. Pierrette Mimi Poinsett’s skepticism – in some cases, outright disappointment – in the U.S. media’s coverage of the Ebola epidemic.
“It’s very much number oriented and not human oriented,” said Poinsett, a pediatrician in Santa Rosa, Calif. who uses social media to discuss the media’s portrayal of health issues. “They are doing all the mathematical modules with no emphasis on the people affected, how the outbreak started and what the needs of the people are.”
Ebola is a highly contagious disease named after the river in the northern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo where the virus was first discovered in 1976. It has affected several villages around the Ebola River and claimed hundreds of lives, but the global community and the media did not treat it as a health emergency. When Ebola returned this summer, it hit three African countries – Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone – worse than in previous outbreaks.
Now that the disease has grabbed the U.S. media’s attention, news reports are not only filled with body counts, but often lack context, which is fueling misinformation and, in some cases, fear and unwarranted worry. Far too often there are media narratives (about Ebola and Africa) that are misleading or inaccurate, scientists and activists say.
One example cited is a news report from Examiner.com that states that the virus has “spread to Nigeria and Senegal. “The World Health Organization has declared the virus contained in Nigeria (after it was introduced by just one person) and there was just one case in Senegal that resulted in no deaths,” noted Minabere Ibelema, associate professor of communication studies at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. “To write of ‘a spread’ is loose reporting.” The reality is that just three countries are seriously affected: Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, with Liberia being by far the worst case. Other countries are either not affected at all or have contained the few incidents, added Ibelema.
Damien Chalaud, director of the Canadian-based World Federation of Science Journalists, agreed with Poinsett that reporters need to humanize their Ebola stories. “I think what’s been lacking is the personal human tragedy and how local communities are dealing with this,” Chalaud said by telephone. U.S. news reports on the virus prompted Chalaud’s organization to release a call to action to close the gap between scientists, journalists and communities. The Ebola outbreak highlights the urgent need for science journalists, particularly in Africa, but the same could be said for the U.S., Chalaud said.
Chalaud describes as “awkward and shocking” some of the news reports and images across media platforms that have crossed the line of respecting the human dignity of Ebola victims. “I don’t think the Ebola coverage in Canada, UK or France has been deficient. Possibly patchy but not flawed,” he said. “In any case, all foreign news coverage tends to be slightly deficient on U.S. media, not just the Ebola crisis.”
In hopes of addressing some of the deficiencies in U.S. news coverage of the Ebola epidemic, here are a few tips:
- Respect human dignity in all reports. “There has been an emphasis on pictures of dead, dying bodies being disinfected and body-bagged with many of the photos about the Ebola outbreak,” said Poinsett. She added that journalists should work harder to give the outbreak a ‘human face’ and try to be more respectful of the dead and dying. Poinsett added that news reports should also take into consideration the difficult work that African health workers are doing.
- Avoid the all-too-common “single narrative” about Africa. “In explaining why Ebola Virus Disease became so widespread Western reporters often cite poor hygiene, as is consistent with the narrative on Africa,” Ibelema said. “The reality is that while basic hygiene is implicated in the spread of diseases such as cholera and dysentery, it is not sufficient to prevent the spread of Ebola. Extraordinary precautions are necessary in this regard.”
- Report more on the human toll of Ebola and less on the “what ifs.” Often narratives have focused upon “what ifs,” including: What if the Ebola virus becomes airborne and what if the Ebola virus comes to the U.S.? “More emphasis should be placed on substance and what is needed,” Poinsett said, “not on baseless speculation.”
- Avoid stories that simply rehash numbers of victims, their “risky” habits, or stereotypes about them. “I think part of the problem has been over-emphasis on eating fruit bats and burial practices (as preventions) than taking into account structural issues such as fragile health infrastructure, limited supplies, very low ratio of health workers to population,” Poinsett said.
- Report on the most vulnerable Ebola victims: Women and children. “There has been limited emphasis on children and mothers. I have seen articles about women having a greater burden of Ebola infection, but not as a focus in the mainstream media,” Poinsett said “Also there is very little information about resources for mothers who are breastfeeding. What happens to children of infected parents during treatment. Are there ‘Ebola orphans?’ What is happening to the children, what are the needs?”
- Journalists should be careful in reporting that Ebola is afflicting West Africa or listing several countries as among the afflicted. “This creates the wrong impression that the Ebola Virus Disease is prevalent in all of the listed countries or the entire sub-continent,” said Ibelema of the University of Alabama. Misleading and false news reports are also negatively impacting African countries and perpetuating stereotypes, said Djibril Diallo, a senior advisor to the Executive Director of UNAIDS. For example a visit to Senegal by the U.S. Olympic Basketball team was cancelled last month, although Senegal has not been largely affected by the outbreak. Senegal has been reported as one of the countries impacted by the Ebola outbreak although only one case has been identified: A Guinean student was successfully treated in the country. The U.S. is not listed, despite bringing in four patients who were also treated successfully, said Diallo, who is Senegalese. “The psychosis triggered by Ebola – Ebolaphobia—is quickly turning into Afrophobia and even outright racism in certain quarters outside Africa, with economic consequences of untold proportions,” he added. “Tourism is not spared. A Thai insurance company recently cancelled a trip to Cape Town, South Africa because, in their mind Ebola is in Africa. In Seoul, South Korea there are reports of signs outside a restaurant that read ‘Due to the Ebola Virus, we are no longer accepting Africans in this restaurant for the moment.’ The sign was photographed by a client and it went viral on social media.”
- Use the Ebola outbreak as an opportunity to tell wider global health stories. “We need to take an interest in health care needs globally,” Poinsett said. “It is a human issue not just a security issue. It is important to go beyond self interest (how do we stay healthy) to how we can promote and advocate for health and wellbeing for all.”
Cyril Ibe teaches journalism and digital media at Central State University in Wilberforce, Ohio. A member of the National Association of African Journalists (NAAJ) in the United States, Ibe is the organization’s digital content producer. Eyobong Ita is the founder of NAAJ as well as editor & publisher of The Drum & Christian Drum newspapers based in Nigeria. This report and tip sheet was produced in partnership between All Digitocracy and the National Association of African Journalists Health Journalism Task Force.