From AIDS to Ebola: Journalism, disease, and the mentality of fear
I remember a day back in the 1980s when I first met a person who I thought had AIDS. I was sitting at the front desk of the old storefront building of the Poynter Institute when a tall gaunt man entered through the glass doors and approached me with a question. I have forgotten his question, but I do remember being frightened by his appearance.
He had several lesions on his face, the kind that people got after their immune system had been compromised by the AIDS virus. I did not reach out to shake his hand, my usual gesture, but babbled some reason to direct him out of the building. I am not proud of this. I just want to establish my credentials as someone capable of panicky, irrational fear.
About a decade after that meeting, 1996 to be exact, I published a month-long series in what was then the St. Petersburg Times called “Three Little Words.” It told the story of a seemingly normal Midwestern family in which father died of AIDS. I learned a lot during the reporting and writing of that narrative. The most important lesson: Be not afraid.
I learned, for example, that HIV was much harder to contract than I had originally thought. Turning back the clock a decade, I could have shaken hands with that man that came into Poynter; I could have embraced him like a brother; we could share a meal without fear of infection. It would have been different if we had shared a needle to shoot up drugs or if we had engaged in anal intercourse.
There is that phrase. Anal intercourse. The one that so many news outlets were afraid to use, paralyzed by their inhibitions over what was possible to publish in a “family newspaper.” So they resorted to euphemism: “the exchange of bodily fluids.” As a result of such squeamishness, I believe that ignorance was spread and that lives were lost.
In addition, we unleashed a decade of hate and discrimination. Two groups felt it most harshly: poor people of color who looked – in the eyes of suburban whites – to be drug addicts; and gay men, all of whom were suspected of dangerous sexual practices with dozens if not hundreds of partners.
While my series on AIDS was running, I was invited by Times sports editor Hubert Mizell to appear on his morning radio talk show. A couple of prominent athletes had been diagnosed with the disease, and Mizell thought the conversation would have news value. I remember one phone call from a hockey fan who said he would no longer attend games because he might become infected with the AIDS virus. We looked at each other, puzzled. Here was his rationale: hockey players get into fights along the boards and if they bled, their blood might splatter into the stands, infecting fans with AIDS.
I can remember my response years later, almost word for word. “Yeah, you might die as a result of attending a hockey game, sir. You might get hit in the head with a puck!”
I am no expert on Ebola, just a concerned American and writer who has been following a lot of the news coverage. Much of it has been very good. But even the best, most cautious, most nuanced coverage, I fear, has a hard time gaining traction.
Journalists, medical professionals, political leaders, people of reason and good faith everywhere must remember that we are fighting one of the most powerful forces in human history: the narrative of the leper. To be called, even metaphorically, a leper means that you are someone who is despised and feared. You will wear a bell around your neck. At your approach, people who fear you will stone you or put you in quarantine to die: leper colonies. Only holy men and women – Jesus, Damian, Mother Teresa – owned the moral courage to comfort the afflicted.
To move from the sublime to the ridiculous, even our popular culture reinforces the ignorant fear of infection. Exhibit A: the zombie. How many thousands and thousands of cinematic zombies have had their heads cut off, their brains blown out, or their bodies torched? If I lived in Zombie Land, that, no doubt, would be my reaction, too. Why? Because if I am bitten, I will become infected, and, after infection, I will join the legions of the living dead. At their core, most horror stories are allegories about disease.
There is another old narrative that has raised its ugly head, one that I have known as a boy, but existed much longer than that. It is the story of Darkest Africa, and it expressed the worst fears of a privileged white race. As great a literary artist as Joseph Conrad succumbed to it in his novel Heart of Darkness. In this narrative, the Dark Continent is a place of primitive and pervasive dangers, where wild animals abound and dark-skinned humans engage in barbaric practices such as cannibalism. Even the cartoons of my youth played out versions of this theme.
I do not believe the irrational public fear of Ebola would be nearly as great if the disease had not come “out of Africa.”
So there is a lot of work to do, my brothers and sisters in journalism. The more we learn, I will predict, the more reason and proportion we will bring to the process. It took me a decade to overcome my fear of AIDS. I know we can do better than that.
When I began this essay, my plan was just to compare Ebola to AIDS. That move led me to something much deeper, the narratives of the despised leper and the primal fears of the Dark Continent. Fear of disease has always been linked to the enemy, the scapegoat. In Shakespeare’s time, the English called syphilis the “French disease.” European Christians blamed the Black Death on Jews, even as they would eventually carry diseases, such as smallpox, to the inhabitants of the New World.This is the mythology of disease. We blame its transmission on people we despise.
In many cases, it is the role of the journalist to point the public’s attention to things they should be afraid of: that hurricane brewing in the Gulf; air bags that blast shrapnel onto drivers; that sinkhole near the bridge. But there is another – I am tempted to say more important – role. That is to take corrosive fear, the kind that leads to prejudice and hate, and apply the disinfecting light of cool reason and reliable information