St Andrews Foreign Affairs Review “Ebola: Challenges to Media”

Read “Ebola: Challenges to Media” at Foreign Affairs Review website.

*Featured/thumbnail image courtesy of UNMEER © 2014, some rights reserved

While Ebola has been a recurrent headline on media for months, it poses a challenge to media in terms of their content and framing of the topic. A number of online news, paper press and cable channels have been criticised for their fear-mongering coverage: FOX broadcasted that Ebola was soon to become airborne without evidence to support the claim;  CNN report questioned whether Ebola could be considered as the “ISIS of biological agents”. Both examples are only few amongst many that asked for the audience’s fear through claims that lack substantive evidence. As a result, the contradiction between public opinion and medicals’ opinion became apparent in US. A Harvard School of Public Health poll (August 21) demonstrated that the public had an inaccurate understanding of how easily Ebola can spread. A Rutgers-Eagleton poll (September 29 – October 5) moreover suggested that the more people follow the outbreak, the more inaccurate information they are likely to hold. Both results showed the close link of public opinion with media and the necessity for more accurate information.

Image courtesy of UNMEER © 2014, some rights reserved

Ebola healthcare workers are one of the victims of the media coverage. In addition to the quarantine policy debates, the wide-spreading fear and misconceptions generated by media has further contributed to stigmatizing and discouraging healthcare professionals and volunteers to West Africa that has been suffering from a medical staff shortage. The lack of medical staff has been reported from places such as Kerry Town in the Freetown district where 60 beds out of 80 were left unoccupied due to lack of staff. Local newspaper in Sierra Leone did not make the situation better for existing staff with the headline of “Why are British here? To end Ebola, or party?” The paper read, “While their American counterparts are working hard to end Ebola in Liberia, our so-called colonial masters are busy living the life of Riley”, which was a baseless claim that British officials later denied. The fact that Ebola responsibilities are distributed according to past colonial divides was emphasised and expressed in local media in a way that enabled the spread of mistrust for medical staff among the locals. Ebola healthcare workers in West Africa were named as TIME’s “Person of the Year 2014”, for their “sacrificing and saving”, and have been praised publicly by state leaders. Despite all the efforts of encouraging more healthcare volunteers to West Africa, media have not always acted in their favor.

The divide of the West and West Africa has also been aggravated by the media, discouraging the cooperation between both parts. False image was delivered by Newsweek when its cover page was filled with a picture of chimpanzee with the title of “A Backdoor to Ebola: Smuggled Bushmeat Could Spark A U.S. Epidemic”, which was criticized as an act of racism and ‘othering’. Othering is an act of separating ‘us’ and ‘them’ – dividing the people into familiar and unfamiliar, people around us and people far away, people without Ebola and people with Ebola – often making communication and cooperation harder. This was the case with AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, when “infected children were barred from schools and some health professionals wouldn’t provide care”, notes Richard E. Besser in The Washington Post, describing how isolation of people dealing with Ebola resembles with isolation of people who dealt with AIDS.

Local news reports in West Africa, too, has a capacity to deprive the possibility of cooperation. Daily Observer, one of the largest newspapers in Liberia speculated that Ebola outbreak is the product of the US Department of Defense being introduced by United Nations. For Liberia, a destination for a number of American healthcare staff, this news has meant that they have to make an effort of regaining trusts. Soon after, this ethical issue of media attracted attention of the President of Liberia, Ellen Johnson, who requested to the national legislature for enhanced power to control false media reports, which sparked a national debate over media ethics and press freedom in the country.

While many media attracted criticisms over their media ethics, there are also attempts of media that have been praised. BBC utilised a mobile phone application called WhatsApp, an application that is widely used by locals in West Africa, in order to provide people with multi-lingual health alerts and updates. Ebola Deeply – a new single-issue website – has also received international approvals, which has been providing audience with an in-depth stories including social, economic and medical aspects. It was formed by Lara Setrakian who also founded Syria Deeply and the parent site News Deeply in 2012. This movement has introduced a new form of news coverage. With experts on the field, Ebola Deeply has taken a role of organising information instead of overloading with unreliable information.

It was in late July when two Americans in Liberia were reported to be infected by Ebola. This was the moment when the American media took notice followed by the British media. It might be inevitable that the media attention depends on the proximity to their national people, and on how ‘us’ are close to ‘them’. However, we must know that the issue is still ongoing despite the fluctuating media attention. Over 7500 deaths have been reported to WHO and is expecting to grow. The media has brought about epidemic of ignorance, resulting in the spread of baseless fear. This is not a new issue: the same problem was experienced at the outbreak of 2009 epidemic known as swine flu. It is media’s responsibility to inform reliable information and also to explore what is not known in order to avoid unnecessary spread of fear. However, when media acts irresponsibly, the audience’s critical viewpoint becomes crucial. With social media, it is becoming easier for the audience to share news stories or even to become a storyteller. It is a fine line between alerting potential issues and encouraging danger and fear, and its acknowledgment is becoming more necessary for both audience and the media.

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