Via Vox.com, Julia Belluz writes an excellent article: Reporters got a lot wrong covering Ebola. We should do better next time. Click through for the full article and many links. Excerpt:
We journalists often rush from one story to the next with whiplash-inducing speed — and sometimes without time to reflect. On Monday, however, a few of us paused. Just as Liberia was finally declared Ebola-free, I appeared on a panel organized by the One Campaign alongside colleagues from NPR, the Washington Post, Ebola Deeply, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Together, we looked back at how the media dealt with the epidemic. What could we have done better? What lessons did we learn? What were we most proud of? And where did our coverage go off the rails?
Since this outbreak won't be the last — and we can and should do a better job reporting on the next one — I wanted to share some thoughts.
1) The low point of the media's Ebola frenzy
When reflecting on the low point in coverage during this crisis, Lara Setrakian, founder of Ebola Deeply, remarked that for her it probably came last summer: she was visiting Asia and saw 24/7 news footage of ambulances bringing American Ebola victims to US hospitals for treatment. She compared this to the now-iconic police chase involving OJ Simpson's white Ford Bronco in 1994, except now, the people in the vehicles — even more absurdly — were disease victims.
Of course, there were other cringe-worthy moments during the crisis. Last fall, when Ebola health workers Kaci Hickox and Craig Spencer returned to the US after serving in West Africa, they were treated like social pariahs. Spencer fell ill with the disease, sparking panic in Manhattan, but even though Hickox had no sign of illness, she was put under a mandatory quarantine. A lot of the media coverage fed into the public fear and political fight over travel bans by, for instance, tracing Dr. Spencer's steps through Manhattan or encircling Hickox's home, wondering if she should be allowed to receive a pizza delivery.
While these journalistic nadirs were embarrassing, there was something much more dangerous going on: all of these stories took attention away from coverage at the epicenter of the outbreak in West Africa. They were distracting. They were frivolous. And, worst of all, we were denigrating and discouraging the very people we should have been celebrating.
2) The problem of portraying scientific uncertainty
One of the greatest challenges while covering the science of Ebola was trying to communicate uncertainty about the virus without freaking people out.
There is a lot we know about the Ebola virus and how it's transmitted. After all, it was discovered more than 30 years ago. But it's still a relatively rare disease, and until last year, had only killed a total of about 1,500 people since it was discovered in 1976. So there is a lot we're learning about the virus, such as how it affects survivors in the long term, or how it mutates when it infects tens of thousands of people as it did over the last year.
Some reporters did an excellent job of conveying these uncertainties while being careful not to induce panic. This piece from Joel Achenbach and Brady Dennis at the Washington Post was masterful, as was this one from Helen Branswell at the Canadian Press.
Many of us were learning about Ebola on the fly, and we couldn't always get a hold of the then over-taxed experts in this rare disease. As Jana Telfer, associate director for communication for science at the CDC, noted during the panel, prior to this outbreak her agency had very few Ebola specialists and a rather limited knowledge of a disease that wasn't a priority in America.
Many of us also wanted to calm the public, and maybe we were afraid of creating space for fear by talking about uncertainties — particularly amid frightening rumors that Ebola could go airborne.
Even so, the lesson here, perhaps, is that it's important to communicate that science is an iterative process — that it's proximate by nature and not a collection of immutable facts. It may be even more important to underscore that fact during panicked times, instead of creating a false sense of certainty that may later backfire.