When the first case of Ebola hit the U.S. in 2014, it happened to be in a city with a newspaper that had a "subject matter expert."
That's a wonky way of saying that Dr. Seema Yasmin is both a reporter for The Dallas Morning News and an epidemiologist who previously worked at the CDC. As her newsroom covered the death of Ebola patient Thomas Eric Duncan, Yasmin explained the intricacies of the disease for readers: how it's spread, how it's treated and how doctors track down people who have come into contact with Duncan.
I asked Yasmin via email about the things journalists did right while covering Ebola, what we messed up and what we can learn while covering the Zika virus.
Are there similarities in the ways journalists are covering Zika now and the ways they covered Ebola in 2014?
Coverage of Ebola picked up once it looked like Europe and North America would see imported cases even though the outbreak had been raging for months. We’re seeing the same thing with Zika. Some media outlets only gain interest in outbreaks when spread of the disease to their part of the developed world is either imminent or has already happened.
We’re also seeing how a few select images get used over and over and end up shaping the overall narrative. With Ebola, it was the medical workers dressed in their spacesuit-like personal protective equipment. With Zika, it’s the crying babies who appear to have microcephaly. Those images can take away from the nuances we see in some of the better reporting.
What differences do you see?
There’s better engagement of local expert sources in coverage of the Zika outbreak compared to Ebola, although the local experts that we’re seeing are mostly white Brazilians. It was rare to see West African epidemiologists or scientists quoted in Ebola stories. Most of the time, West Africans were portrayed as victims. They were less likely to be the experts or the champions.
I remember one American reporter saying with great pride that he was including "the African perspective" in a story on the science of Ebola. Guess where that "African perspective" came from? A white male academic on the west coast of America.
What did we get wrong with Ebola coverage that we have the chance to get right this time?
We did eventually begin to hold public health agencies accountable for their delay in responding to the Ebola crisis, but that came later. It needs to begin earlier with Zika with questions about why the WHO didn’t convene an emergency meeting sooner and why the guidance that came from that meeting was so vague.
Epidemics are so much deeper than just the spread of a disease — look at West Africa, where we’re only just starting to see the aftermath of the Ebola epidemic including a spike in teenage pregnancies and girls and women who were victims of gender-based violence during the outbreak. We need to be on the lookout for those stories as the outbreak is happening.
What are other angles we should be covering?
Follow the data. Those reports of half a million to 1.5 million people in Brazil infected with the Zika virus — what are those numbers based on? We keep seeing that 4,000 babies have been born with microcephaly. But microcephaly can be difficult to diagnose, and not all of those children have a confirmed diagnosis. Questioning the data is important for accuracy, of course, but there are stories behind who is generating those numbers and how.
Another important angle is the reproductive rights issue. There’s been some great reporting on the lack of access to family planning services such as contraception and safe abortions in Zika-affected countries where women are being asked to delay pregnancy. The outbreak is revealing how bad the situation is and that in itself is a major global health issue.
I hope we see more of that coverage as well as reporting on why the WHO is not standing up for women’s reproductive health rights. The story of the Zika outbreak is a story about women’s reproductive injustice.