Media give mixed messages on “out of control” Ebola outbreak

Media outlets seem to be working at cross purposes in telling people what to make of the Ebola outbreak that continues to kill people in West Africa. All week, reporters kept echoing the words of a member of the group Doctors without Borders stating that the epidemic was “out of control.” Other public officials later uttered the same sound bite. More media alarm bells rang near the week’s end when the World Health Organization declared the outbreak a public health emergency.

Meanwhile, others told us not to worry – that we’re in more danger from electromagnetic pulses from space.

Part of the problem with the “out of control” statement is that without context it could be interpreted different ways. Is it a reflection of a doctor’s understandable emotional state, a message that people outside West Africa should care about the plight of Africans exposed to the disease, or a message that we should worry about it ourselves? Is it even possible for an ongoing Ebola outbreak to be under control?

Dozens of stories used “out of control” as a sound bite in ledes or headlines.

On the other side, a slew of stories told us not to worry.

Should journalists be telling people they should care about a problem far away or that they shouldn’t worry?

The most informative stories did neither. They showed readers in detail what’s happening rather than telling them what to feel about it.

The reporters on the ground in Africa are doing an incredible job of getting our attention the right way – by just telling the story in specific detail. Readers end up caring out of compassion rather than out of irrational fear. This story by Adam Nossiter, Don’t tough the walls, Ebola fear infects hospital, from today’s New York Times is a good example, giving specifics on what is out of control and why it does matter.

KENEMA, Sierra Leone — So many patients, nurses and health workers have died in the government hospital that many people in this city, a center of the world’s worst Ebola epidemic, see it as a death trap.

Now, the wards are empty in the principal institution fighting the disease. Ebola stalks the city, claiming lives every day, but patients have fled the hospital’s long, narrow buildings, which sit silent and echoing in the fading light. Few people are taking any chances by coming here.

“Don’t touch the walls!” a Western medical technician yelled out. “Totally infected.”

Another journalist reporting from the heart of the outbreak, Wade Williams of FrontPageAfrica, shows us what the situation looks and feels like, and makes a case that the situation was worsened by local governments withholding information from journalists. Here’s a snapshot from In the Grip of Ebola.

In Johnsonville, a swampy town outside Monrovia, three dozen corpses in body bags were dumped in shallow holes marked by wooden headstones last week. Afterward, white gloves and other protective garments lay scattered everywhere — abandoned by a doctor and his burial team as the community, bewildered with fright, chased them away.

It may be true that in theory an electromagnetic pulse has the potential to cause more human suffering than this Ebola outbreak, but this outbreak is causing real suffering now. Reading the stories from the journalists in the affected parts of Africa allows us to imagine the nightmare of having a parent or spouse or child sick with Ebola.

A couple of other interesting angles:

  • Also in the New York Times, Andrew Pollack examined the complex decision to give an experimental treatment to the two Americans who contracted the disease: In Ebola Outbreak, Who Should Get Experimental Drug?
  • In Time, there was a story by Michael Scherer with a technology angle: The Bot That Knew Ebola was Coming.
  • And Vox had Where the Ebola Outbreak Will Go Next, by by Julia Belluz, which promises more forecasting magic than it delivers, giving us the same expert opinion found in other stories, reassuring us that additional deaths are more likely to occur in West Africa than in the U.S. But there was one interesting quote. An epidemiologist said he feared the disease would become “endemic”. This quote wasn’t explained, but it should have been, because endemic doesn’t mean pandemic. But it could be worrisome for a different reason, since malaria is endemic to certain regions and it’s an enormous problem causing thousands of deaths. 

– Faye Flam

 

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    None of the coverage I’ve seen takes the position that seems most legitimate to me: that the epidemic is NOT “out of control” or a major threat, even in Africa. 800 people have died since January. During that same time, tens of thousands of people have died of malaria. I’ve talked to infectious disease experts who say there’s essentially no chance of ebola killing even a tiny fraction of that number. I think the media have gone insane. NOBODY is reporting this in a truly skeptical fashion, and I think that’s malpractice

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