Analysis & Opinions - Columbia Journalism Review

Here’s how to produce strong Ebola stories

| Oct. 06, 2014

The first American case of Ebola, diagnosed last week in Dallas, TX, was a real-time test for government officials seeking to quell public fears about the prospect of a major outbreak here—and for journalists reporting the story at the local, national, and international levels. By and large, both public health experts and mainstream media get good marks in terms of clear communication about the Texas Ebola case, despite some medical mishaps in Dallas and cable news hyperbole.

The most effective Ebola media coverage thus far has been due in part to the steady hands of experienced—and highly credible—federal medical leaders as well as health and science specialty beat reporters on news teams at major print, radio, and television outlets. But with hundreds of inquiries daily about potential US cases—all of which have been ruled out except for Dallas contacts to the Liberian Ebola patient—as well as the cold and flu season ahead, the Ebola story is likely to tax both health and media organizations in the weeks to come. 

The National Institutes of Health’s Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, an immunologist who has directed federal research on infectious diseases for three decades, and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director Dr. Tom Frieden, a former New York City health commissioner, have been the chief faces of federal efforts to prevent both the spread of the Ebola virus in the US and the spread of panic. They have criss-crossed numerous television talk shows as well as White House and congressional briefings, providing public reassurances with similar messages: The American public health and medical system is well equipped to control an outbreak of Ebola here; the West African Ebola epidemic is out-of-control because of poor health and medical facilities and needs our help there; and any individual exposed to the Ebola virus is not contagious until he or she shows disease symptoms, such as fever or vomiting.

Fauci, however, has been careful to set realistic expectations, telling Fox News Sunday that he “would not be surprised if somebody who has close contact” with Thomas Eric Duncan, the Liberian Ebola victim in Dallas, “actually contracted Ebola.” Fox anchor Chris Wallace prodded Fauci with a series of pointed questions, including whether to curtail flights from West Africa to the US, whether illegal immigrants coming across the southern US border were likely to bring the Ebola virus, and whether Ebola would make a good bio-terrorist weapon. No, no, and no, said Fauci, 73, a scientific and public leader since the US fight against HIV/AIDS started in the 1980s. He gently chided Wallace, calling the immigrant and bioterrorist hypotheticals “far-fetched.”

Others had far more pointed attacks for Fox’s Ebola coverage. At the news and opinion blog Mediaite, Evan McMurray ridiculedFox and Friends for Donald Trump’s Ebola theories on this morning’s show. And on Sunday, veteran science correspondent Miles O’Brien delivered a harsh critique of Fox News’ Ebola commentators. It “reflects, frankly, a level of ignorance we should not allow in our media and in our discourse,” O’Brien said on CNN’s Reliable Sources. O’Brien, a former CNN science reporter and anchor who now reports for the PBS NewsHour, also took a swipe at his old cable network’s cutbacks: “My biggest wish for the audience is that the mainstream media, the big outlets—CNN included—realize that science coverage is important, and that they should have people on staff who have a certain amount of expertise, who study this beat.”

For health stories, television networks tend to rely more heavily on reporting and commentary by their own trusted in-house physicians. CNN’s chief medical correspondent Sanjay Gupta, a neurosurgeon, did provide a clear voice of authority when covering the Texas case, particularly when a local hospital came under criticism for releasing Duncan, the Ebola patient, from its emergency room before admitting him to a hospital isolation room several days later. And NBC’s Nancy Snyderman, a television correspondent and medical editor for more than 20 years, put herself on the front line by traveling to Liberia to cover the Ebola epidemic. Her team took every precaution, donning protective gear to enter hospitals and washing down with bleach afterwards, she told NBC News anchor Brian Williams on October 3. However, after a newly hired cameraman fell ill with Ebola, Snyderman and her NBC team suddenly found themselves “under 21-day quarantine with a firm belief we’ll come out the other end okay.”

The arrival of Ebola in America has highlighted the importance of good local coverage. The Dallas Morning News found itself at ground zero last week, particularly when questions arose about Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital’s handling of the case, as well as local decontamination efforts at the apartment where the Ebola patient stayed. The paper pulled together a team and dedicated webpage on Ebola that included breaking coverage by its longtime healthcare reporter, Sherry Jacobson, who has covered local hospitals extensively.

In addition to Jacobson, coverage has featured part-time staffer Dr. Seema Yasmin, a former epidemiologist with the CDC and an infectious-disease expert who teaches at the University of Texas at Dallas. Yasmin was featured in the Morning News’ explainer on how and when Ebola is and is not spread—a staple of responsible coverage offered by many outlets. “She wasn’t hired for this story; she was just here, which was quite good for us,” Randy Lee Loftis, the paper’s environmental reporter, said in an email. Loftis himself tracked the botched ER handling in a nice weekend feature: “Dallas Ebola Case Shows that Even Sound Plans Can Fail Spectacularly.”

With most major newspapers dispatching teams of reporters to detail the Ebola-in-America story, a few other efforts merit mention. The New York Times has a comprehensive multimedia resource: “What Are the Chances Ebola Will Spread in the United States?” At the Los Angeles Times, science and health reporter Monte Morin has been covering Ebola, including yesterday’s excellent quadruple-bylined story: “From Guinea to Dallas: Tracing the Ebola Threat.” A simple but effective infographic timeline traced the Texas patient’s travel, his symptoms, and the infectious period for the Ebola virus.

And at USA Today, medical reporter Liz Szabo has taken the public health lead. Her latest missive Monday afternoon clarifies how the virus is spread, and an earlier highly personal essay sought to put the Ebola threat in perspective: “Even germaphobes don’t need to fear Ebola.”

That story concluded:

The Ebola epidemic is heartbreaking. I’ve covered it for months, hoping that my stories will move people to help. Many reputable charities have been on the scene in West Africa since the first days of the outbreak in March. Americans who are concerned about Ebola should consider making a donation.

People might also want to consider protecting themselves from diseases that pose far greater risks in the USA. Half of Americans skip the flu shot, even though influenza kills up to 49,000 Americans a year.

As Paul Offit, chief of infectious diseases at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, told me, ‘I bet that if we put out an Ebola virus vaccine tomorrow, half of this country would take it, even though it hasn’t killed anyone who hasn’t traveled’ to the affected countries. ‘Yet you can’t get parents to give their children an HPV vaccine to prevent a virus that kills 4,000 U.S. citizens a year.
For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Russell, Cristine.“Here’s how to produce strong Ebola stories.” Columbia Journalism Review, October 6, 2014.