Ebola is a terrifying disease. Its mortality rate is about 50%, and it is currently contained (except for a few cases) to West African countries such as DRC, Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone. A deluge of articles has followed this outbreak from news outlets around the world. Many are good, unbiased pieces that help inform the public. Others are not. This post describes some ways to avoid the pitfalls some journalists have fallen victim to.
1) Don’t spread panic
This is Public Health Communications 101. The first step to an outbreak is to do your best to keep the public calm and make sure you don’t multiply the crises your community is facing. When the coverage was just starting, POLITICO published an article called, “CDC: U.S. can’t seal borders to stop Ebola.” The article was not wrong—the CDC had said that. But by ignoring the many other statements by the CDC, the article shows its sensational bias.
To avoid this: Accurately represent the crisis without dramatizing the headline. Make sure your coverage not only shows the threats the disease poses to the U.S., but also perhaps the strategies that are working to contain it, or possibly even the truth about how we are more afraid of it than we should be. By showing a realistic representation of the disease, you can mitigate panic and provide clear, concise facts to your reader.
2) Don’t ignore the context
Ebola is killing people every day, but it is not the most deadly disease out there. So when potentially misleading articles such as, “Ebola epidemic more deadly than all previous combined, report says,” (all previous Ebola outbreaks? All previous epidemics?) are published, it forgoes the context. In fact, later on in the article a CDC director is quoted saying, “We don’t think that [estimate] will come to pass.” Articles that highlight new reports or specific estimates aren’t taking the full context into consideration, and thereby misleads the reader.
To avoid this: Make sure your story shows the whole picture of the story, and doesn’t just rely on our inherent fear of the disease. Ebola has a high mortality rate, but it’s far more difficult to catch that other deadly disease. Other diseases, such as the flu, are far deadlier when you look at the big picture. In fact, Influenza kills 23,000 people annually…in America. So while Ebola is the disease that everyone is talking about, make sure you keep the context in mind. (Bonus: For an extra article, take a look at this interview with a professor from Sussex about putting Ebola in context.)
3) Don’t stick to the numbers
Sometimes authors put sensational numbers in their headlines as a hook. It makes sense, because you want readers to come to your story and you need a good hook. However, sometimes the numbers numb the reader, and dehumanize the story itself. If you look at that article, you will find six estimations of body counts. There is no protagonist. There is no hero. There are just lots and lots of scary numbers. And at the end of the numbers, there’s a short paragraph that starts with, “There is no cure for Ebola.”
To avoid this: Humanize your story by taking a personal look at the disease and pairing it with the numbers to show breadth. An article from the Washington Post pairs the two well, starting off with the statistics and then humanizing the numbers through photographs and anecdotes. By deepening their look at the disease, the article invites the reader to identify with the victims and see their side of the story.
What else should you not do when talking about Ebola? Submit your ideas in the comments!