Media coverage of Ebola requires a delicate balance
The task of covering Ebola is a tricky one for the media.
Too much coverage, and we look like we're being exploitative with scare tactics. Too little coverage, and we get blamed for not enlightening our audience of its scope.
A vivid photo this weekend that made its way into a lot of newspapers showed an unnamed man taking his garbage out, across the street from the apartment complex where Ebola victim Thomas Duncan lives. The man wore a mask.
Remember when Magic Johnson was first diagnosed with having HIV? Many of his teammates, opponents and fans were upset when he came out of his self-imposed retirement to play in the All Star game. I was working at WPXI (NBC) in Pittsburgh at the time. The NBC televised game generated a lot of phone calls; many of them asking why we were encouraging Johnson's decision to play by televising the game. And there were players who didn't want to be on the same court with him, the same locker room with him and to even shake his hand.
The issue at that time was AIDS, and unknown concerns about the disease. Some of the viewer/callers thought they could contract the disease by watching that All Star telecast. Today we can laugh, or at least smirk, at those reactions. Because we understand a lot more about HIV, Aids, and treatment. But the media did not let up then.
We are blessed in the United States with outstanding medical care. Charlotte resident Nancy Writebol came back from a missionary trip with the Ebola virus. The networks showed the many precautions taken for her flight and subsequent arrival back in the U.S. With a couple of weeks of treatment in Atlanta, she was strong enough to walk out of the hospital and return home.
But she was flown to the U.S. from Africa especially for the health care. Was she exploited by the coverage? Did the video of all the safety measures taken by the caretakers scare viewers, readers? Probably But Ms. Writebol is able to be healthy again. The people in Africa are not so fortunate. The lack of hygiene, clean water and access to facilities that know how handle the virus makes contracting the Ebola virus a veritable death sentence there.
But the contagious nature of the disease, as we now know it, has been clearly outlined by network correspondents. It does not appear to be the pandemic virus many fear.
Critics of coverage, on both the national level and local level could cite a range of opinions -- over the top, just right or underwhelming.
The Charlotte Business Journal's "Business Pulse" asked this for their weekend readers: "How much do you expect Ebola to spread in the United States?" Their unscientific poll's first 2500 respondent's answers:
- 55% Problem -- but we'll avoid an epidemic.
- 26% Mostly under control, don't expect many more cases.
- 14% Expect a widespread and deadly outbreak around the country.
- 5% Under control and don't expect any more cases in the United States.
The amount of time and energy we spend covering Ebola should be evaluation by the audience's judgement of how the disease will impact their 'local world." And luckily for an overwhelming number in the United States, there is not a threat. But, that doesn't end our responsibility to inform and stay abreast of the issue. No matter what our audience might believe. We can't let up. No matter what the critics might say.
And hopefully, in a short period of time, we'll understand the implications much more and can look at a disease we can control both at home and at the root of the issue, in the Ebola-stricken areas of Africa.
The author of this article, Ken White, is a broadcasting consultant/talent coach