Covering the ills of the world under risky conditions comes with the territory for most reporters. In war zones, at natural disaster sites and in remote West African villages where death caused by the Ebola virus is spreading, these brave journalists are essentially news surrogates for us all.
But when the public’s need to know clashes with misinformation, inaccuracy and fear, the result is panic, paranoia and mass hysteria, and an uninformed public more harmed than civically served.
Case in point: Michel du Cille and the Ebola virus.
The three-time Pulitzer Prize winner and Washington Post photojournalist spent September in Monrovia, Liberia, chronicling the effects of the deadly virus on the country and its people.
“I believe that the world must see the horrible and dehumanizing effects of Ebola,” he said.
Du Cille took the recommended precautions while in Liberia — touching no one, frequently washing his hands, and spraying the bottom of his shoes with a chlorine solution. After returning to the United States, he underwent and completed a 21-day, CDC-sanctioned waiting period for the disease to surface. He is symptom-free. But irrational fear got him disinvited from teaching, of all things, a journalism workshop at Syracuse University. An angry du Cille rightly noted, “It was a disservice to journalism students at Syracuse, a missed opportunity to share real-world experiences with future media professionals.”
Since du Cille’s ban last week, 14 African journalists have been disinvited to participate in journalism programs at two U.S. universities.
At a town hall meeting held at the Newseum Oct. 20, sponsored by Washington, D.C., all-news radio station WTOP, Joshua Sharfstein, secretary of the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, generally praised media coverage of Ebola in Maryland and cautioned that fear, rather than the disease, is transmitted by air.
The closest parallel to current Ebola coverage and the world’s reaction is HIV/AIDS in the 1980s. Gay publications such as The Washington Blade and the New York Native, and gay reporters such as Randy Shilts, were among the first to address the emerging epidemic. In 1981, an article in the New York Native headlined “Cancer in the Gay Community” explored possible causes of the disease. Mainstream publications in cities hardest hit by the virus took approximately two years to highlight the story on the front page.
Press reports of HIV/AIDS followed a familiar pattern: Coverage begins in a handful of ethnic, specialty or alternative publications, followed later by the mainstream media. Inaccurate and conflicting stories about how the disease spreads ensue, sparking fear and unfair ostracism. Fact-based, responsible reporting ultimately set in, turning anxiety into caution and understanding.
A number of news organizations around the world have decided, like du Cille, that covering Ebola is worth the risk. They know that like HIV/AIDS, Ebola is spread only through contact with the bodily fluids of an infected person. Spreading responsible journalism in the face of widespread anxiety and fear is another matter, and an ongoing challenge.