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Covering Ebola Paige Brown Jarreau, Guest Lecture
Ebola Ebola: Basics About the Disease http://fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R43750.pdf
Ebola Outbreak 2014 “Ebola has been spreading since it was first diagnosed in March 2014 in Guinea. More than two-thirds who got the disease in this current outbreak in West Africa didn’t survive. Almost 4,500 have died so far. It is the deadliest outbreak of Ebola in history.” http://theconversation.com/ebola-in-the-usa-dont-trust-what-you-read-on-twitter-33211 “The disease was first identified in 1976, appearing simultaneously in Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Until now the number of cases has been fairly limited, but the fatality rates are high — anywhere from 25% to 90%; the average is 50% — depending on the strain of virus and the care received.” http://journalistsresource.org/studies/society/public-health/ebola-virus-us-preparedness-review-research-perspectives#
Assessing the International Spreading Risk Associated with the 2014 West African Ebola Outbreak SEPTEMBER 2, 2014 “the short-term (3 and 6 weeks) probability of international spread outside the African region is small, but not negligible. The extension of the outbreak is more likely occurring in African countries, increasing the risk of international dissemination on a longer time scale.”
How Contagious Is it Really? What to know Sick people become infectious themselves only when they begin to show symptoms. Disease transmission requires direct contact with an infected person’s bodily fluids, such as blood, vomit or semen. (Extreme caution is warranted because there is no vaccine for Ebola). While Ebola virus is extremely dangerous, its transmission rate is lower than that of many other diseases. “As long as people are under proper care and appropriate precautions are taken, there’s no reason to think we can’t control the transmission of the virus” - Michael VanRooyen, Harvard Medical School http://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2014/08/understanding-ebola/. http://www.npr.org/blogs/health/2014/10/02/352983774/no-seriously-how-contagious-is-ebola
2014 Ebola Outbreak – A Crisis WHO Director-General Margaret Chan noted that this outbreak “is a social crisis, a humanitarian crisis, an economic crisis, and a threat to national security well beyond the outbreak zones.”
Why is covering the current Ebola outbreak difficult? “This epidemic is showing how disease is a lot more complicated than just being a virus or bacteria or parasite, etc., that has to be fought. Diseases need certain environmental circumstances to thrive–like poverty in post-civil war countries, which is of course what we see in Liberia and Sierra Leone. But that then gets into history, politics, and a lot of nuance, which is, frankly, boring for anyone participating in the 24/7 news cycle.” – Kelly Hills, professional editor and writer in the medical sciences and humanities
Why is covering the current Ebola outbreak difficult? “[I]nstead of a simple ‘backbreaking poverty means that the situation was prime for an epidemic to occur, because of limited medical resources and almost no doctors, which is completely opposite what y'all in the developed world are accustomed to,’ people go for the over-the-top (and wrong) depictions of Ebola that have been perpetuated by The Hot Zone and movies like ‘Outbreak.’ And, of course, focus on the few developed world doctors and nurses who become sick because they're ‘like’ rather than ‘other.’” – Kelly Hills, professional editor and writer in the medical sciences and humanities
Sensationalism “[I]n other words, ‘oh my god is Ebola mutating?!?!’ is the sort of clickbait that the 24/7 news cycle will flock to. ...if they could Buzzfeed the headline to something like ‘Ebola: What You Don't Know Will Shock You’ or ‘One Easy Trick to Stopping the Ebola Epidemic’ … they would/will.” – Kelly Hills, professional editor and writer in the medical sciences and humanities
Ebola in America http://blogs.spjnetwork.org/ethics/2014/10/20/ebola-in-america/
Ethics of Reporting Ebola in U.S. “While many people wave off irresponsible journalism as the result of the digital world hungry for constant content, reports that lead to more questions than answers may also lead to harm.” “the general U.S. public…for the most part…only know of Ebola virus disease through the stories and images they received in years past from Africa. Journalists have the responsibility to act and provide accurate answers through thorough reporting. It’s not the job of journalists to drum up unwarranted fear or concern.” “In addition to the wear and tear of general anxiety, the potential harm of unchecked rumors and fear among the general public can be seen in U.S. history books. Fear and uncertainty over the transmission of HIV in 1987 led to a ban on people infected with the virus, which causes AIDS, from entering the U.S. The ban stayed on the books until 2009, a year after then-President George W. Bush began the repeal process.” http://blogs.spjnetwork.org/ethics/2014/10/20/ebola-in-america/
Don’t Trust Twitter Volume of #Ebola tweets by country. Crimson Hexagon http://theconversation.com/ebola-in-the-usa-dont-trust-what-you-read-on-twitter-33211 In the first two weeks of October, there were more than 18 million tweets with the word “Ebola”.
Who is Tweeting about Ebola? The World Health Organization, UNICEF, the UN and similar bodies have taken to Twitter to spread information and advice, and counter half-truths. Constant updates from news outlets about who in the West has contracted the disease or the level of preparedness of the local hospitals. But only a handful of tweets have come from the ground in West Africa, where the crisis is most acute. The number of tweets from three of the most affected countries, Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia, can be counted in the hundreds. Out of the more than a million #Ebola tweets with an identifiable location, around 60% have come from Americans. http://theconversation.com/ebola-in-the-usa-dont-trust-what-you-read-on-twitter-33211
Who is Tweeting about Ebola? Frequent Terms and Themes http://theconversation.com/ebola-in-the-usa-dont-trust-what-you-read-on-twitter-33211
Ebola is here! (Fear and sensationalism) The Speaker, Flickr.com.
Who is Tweeting about Ebola? “The largest single spike of chatter on #Ebola was on October 16 after news emerged that Amber Vinson, a nurse who treated Duncan, had contracted the virus. On that day, more than three-quarters of tweets came from the US.” “Ebola largely reflects the hopes and fears of Americans, driven by the latest news tidbits about the disease on the US mainland. The real story is happening thousands of kilometers away, where doctors, nurses and medical workers are trying to contain the outbreak with stretched resources. Those tweets from West Africa are simply drowned out by the volume and visibility of Americans tweeting about Ebola.” http://theconversation.com/ebola-in-the-usa-dont-trust-what-you-read-on-twitter-33211
Ebola Worries RiseBroad Support for U.S. Efforts to Deal With Ebola in West Africa http://www.people-press.org/2014/10/21/ebola-worries-rise-but-most-are-fairly-confident-in-government-hospitals-to-deal-with-disease/
What Can Communicators Do? Direct public concern into Ebola aid: http://www.kellyhills.com/blog/aid-organizations-working-in-ebola-regions/ [T]here is an onus on the various mediums to expand the call for help expressed by both the WHO and MSF. Unfortunately, this didn't happen quickly. As a result, little was done for months after the Public Health Emergency was declared. While traditional media may not choose this route, blog posts and social media can be used to spread the word. MSF has done a good job but they can’t do this alone.” – Jason A Tetro, AKA TheGermGuy
What can you do to cover Ebola, or similar outbreaks, better?
Ask Questions of Experts “As with any topic, journalists with questions about Ebola virus disease or possible cases in communities should do what they always do – ask questions and provide accurate information.” - Andrew Seaman, http://blogs.spjnetwork.org/ethics/2014/10/20/ebola-in-america/
Find Experts, not “experts”
Some Science Bloggers/Writers Covering Ebola with Expertise Virology Down Under - http://virologydownunder.blogspot.com/ http://www.taracsmith.com/ebola.html http://www.wired.com/category/superbug Don’t be afraid to ask these and other experts for help/info on social media
The Hot Zone is NOT a good example
Don’t Believe Everything You See in the Movies “Part of the fear about an Ebola outbreak in the US stems from how the virus has been treated by Hollywood and the media.” "Ebola has a mystique about it because the way that it has been treated in fiction.“ - Amesh Adalja, an infectious disease specialist from the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and the Center for Health Security “All of these factors work to fuel a panic mentality. But in the US, Canada, Europe, and most countries with well-developed health care systems, Ebola poses almost no real risk because patients can be isolated and treated without spreading the virus.”http://www.businessinsider.com/ebola-virus-in-us-dallas-dont-panic-2014-9#ixzz3EqcLntE8
Combating Public Misperceptions "If you came of age at a certain time, when you hear Ebola, you almost certainly associate it with stories of people horribly bleeding from every orifice, eyes weeping blood, as they die a violent and wet death. Graphic, it makes for good thriller reading or movies–and yet, is so inaccurate, people are actually dying because it doesn't look like you think it 'should' from these popular media reports.” “You have to walk back what people think they know, in order to share not only what they should but need to know.” - Kelly Hills, science writer/editor
It’s about more than Virology
Better ways to cover the Ebola outbreak Focus more on the people who are dying in the Western African nations. Be honest about why the typical models for controlling an Ebola outbreak aren't working there. Don't perpetuate the unsubstantiated claims of mutation. Look beyond the medical to the anthropology, the culture, and the other factors beyond poverty that are blocking efforts at containment. Be aware of the privilege that comes from writing while wealthy - center the story on the people actually suffering from the devastating effects of Ebola (whether they or their family have contracted or died from it, or if they're being hurt from the lack of medical services for all other needs) Be realistic about both why the situation has deteriorated and how it will be fixed.
Crisis Communications: Don’t Spread Panic
Beware “Airborne” and Mutation Claims One of the most controversial issues implicated in the current outbreak is the issue of whether Ebola can be transmitted through the air. Scientists do not believe it can, based on the most recent lab experiments. The CDC summarizes the findings of several studies as follows: “Airborne transmission of Ebola virus has been hypothesized but not demonstrated in humans. While Ebola virus can be spread through airborne particles under experimental conditions in animals, this type of spread has not been documented during human EVD outbreaks in settings such as hospitals or households.” http://journalistsresource.org/studies/society/public-health/ebola-virus-us-preparedness-review-research-perspectives# Nature magazine 2014 study: http://www.nature.com/srep/2014/140725/srep05824/full/srep05824.html
Focus on Global Angles “There's been too much focus on the American health care workers and British nurse who were sick, and not enough on the folks in West Africa dying of the disease.” – Kelly Hills
Focus on Global Angles, Humanize the Outbreak http://www.scilogs.com/thats_basic_science/outbreak-abroad-jennifer-yang-toronto-star/
Science Tweeters: #ebolanoia
Science Tweeters: #ebolanoia
Other Issues – Culturally Sensitive Science Communication
“As an ecologist, I appreciate this perspective. It's an important connection that few people make or understand. When forest ecosystems are modified or destroyed and human settlements expand into once wild or hardly inhabited spaces, people are more likely to come into contact with diseases. It's referred to as Vector Sink dynamics.” “Visit the website and use scan it. It's image after image of thick masses of sick and depressed black and brown bodies associated with negative phrases like human filth, polluting the earth, ecosystem collapse. Then there's this one image of a white guy holding a sign "Earth is Everything" - defender of the Earth I suppose.” “I see no passionate outrage on the deforestation and mining interests or coffee/cocoa agriculture interests in West Africa and how these (Western) political-economic interests play a role in Ebola spread dynamics or West African poverty, population spread, climate change impact, or large-scale civil conflict.” “The messages sound judge-y and accusatory and let Western culprits completely off of the hook for the myriad ways they contribute to disenfranchisement and disparities in developing nations.” – Dr. Danielle Lee, @DNLee5 Other Issues – Culturally Sensitive Science Communication http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/urban-scientist/2014/10/27/if-you-cant-be-a-good-example-be-a-warning-how-ecointernets-scicomm-fail-can-make-you-a-more-culturally-aware-science-communicator/
First Case of Ebola in the US OK Coverage: Business Insider “The patient is believed to have had a handful of contacts with people after showing symptoms of the virus, and before being isolated, Frieden said. A CDC team was en route to Texas to help investigate those contacts. […] At the same time, Frieden sought to play down the risk to public health. There are currently no other suspected cases of Ebola in Texas.” No-so-OK Coverage: CNN “The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has confirmed the first patient to be diagnosed with Ebola in the United States is at a hospital in Dallas. But they say there's "zero risk" he infected anyone else on his flight here and they're confident the virus will not spread widely in the United States.” NBC
Lessons For Journalism Students “If you are asked to cover a particular research study on Ebola; do what you can to put some kind of human element and context into the story that will make people care about the outbreak as a whole.” - Erika Check Hayden “I believe the word ‘context’ must be discussed. A look at the history, the sociopolitical issues, the economic issues, the culture, the behaviors, and the reaction to intervention needs to be explored. Also, a look at how previous encounters in other areas of the world (SARS, cholera, etc.) can offer perspective on how this current outbreak is either unique (it’s not) or similar to other epidemics.” - Jason ‘The Germ Guy’ Tetro The fight against Ebola in Guinea. European Commission DG ECHO, Flickr.com
Lessons For PR & Crisis Communication Students “Rely on the experts. And University PR/PIO? Check all your departments! Don't be afraid to mass email! Look under rocks–and I mean that kind of literally; my alma mater? The epidemiologists often were in the geography department, because diseases are often impacted/affected by natural terrain.” - Kelly Hills “Be careful and only speak when the evidence is known. On that note, avoid at all costs the ‘What If’ scenario.” - Jason ‘The Germ Guy’ Tetro
More Reading Covering Ebola How Do You Catch Ebola: By Air, Sweat Or Water? Ebola scams are sickening 13 things you need to know about Ebola Peter Piot, one of Ebola discoverers: "I wouldn't be worried to sit next to someone with Ebola virus on the Tube as long as they don't vomit on you or something. This is an infection that requires very close contact." Studying Ebola, Then Dying From It, a piece that brings humanity to the outbreak Scientists see risk of mutant airborne Ebola as remote, via Reuters Surviving Ebola, but Untouchable Back Home World struggles to stop Ebola CDC Updates: http://www.cdc.gov/vhf/ebola/