'It has been surreal' to cover Ebola in Dallas

[caption id="attachment_273463" align="alignleft" width="460"]A hazardous material cleaner removes a wrapped item from the apartment where Thomas Eric Duncan, the Ebola patient who traveled from Liberia to Dallas, stayed last week, in Dallas, Monday, Oct. 6, 2014. Duncan has been hospitalized at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital since Sept. 28. (AP Photo/LM Otero) A hazardous material cleaner removes a wrapped item from the apartment where Thomas Eric Duncan, the Ebola patient who traveled from Liberia to Dallas, stayed last week, in Dallas, Monday, Oct. 6, 2014. Duncan died on Wednesday. (AP Photo/LM Otero)[/caption]

On Wednesday, Dr. Seema Yasmin reported on a story she never thought she'd tell in Dallas -- Thomas Eric Duncan had died from Ebola.

Last Monday, Yasmin, a physician and staff writer/subject matter expert for the Dallas Morning News, heard that there was a possible case of Ebola in Dallas, but there had been a lot of possible cases around the country that turned out to be other things. The next morning, she aired a segment for the local NBC station talking about what those might be instead, such as malaria or typhoid.

That morning, around 11:30, she got a text from a source. The CDC was sending a team to Dallas. As someone who had worked at the CDC until June, she knew they'd only send people out if it really was Ebola.

This actually might be Ebola, Yasmin remembers thinking. "That was a surreal moment."

The next moments and days and the week since has gone by quickly, with Yasmin and much of the rest of the staff at the Morning News working to answer some big and small questions:

What happens next in Dallas?

What's the best way to inform readers?

What's the best way to get that information out so that people can make their own decisions?

"The discussion we're having a lot is how do we keep our readers informed in a really responsible way," Yasmin said in a phone interview on Tuesday.

Ebola in Dallas is surreal, she said again.

"It's a pivotal moment for public health."

It's also a big moment, while obviously unplanned, for the Morning News' subject matter expert program. Yasmin is the third such expert at the paper, and she's now interviewing people she worked with just a year ago, people who did her job at the CDC. That insight doesn't make her better sourced or better able to tell the story than her colleagues, though, she said.

"I guess I start off with an understanding of what they're going through, that informs some of my questions."

The Morning News has turned a lot of people in the newsroom onto the story since it started in Dallas last week -- education reporters covering children who were in contact with Duncan, city hall reporters covering breaking news, investigative reporters looking into what happened that night Duncan was first at the hospital.

"It's incredible to see everyone turn their expertise to this," Yasmin said.

Yasmin's editor, Tom Huang, has tried to keep her focused on in-depth, enterprise stories, he said in a phone interview, including how the CDC identifies the people who came in contact with Duncan.

"It's made an incredible difference," said Huang, Sunday & Enterprise Editor at the Morning News and Poynter's ethics and diversity fellow. "She's bringing her expertise to her stories, she's thinking of angles that we might not necessarily have thought about, she's consulting with a bunch of the other reporters on stories they're working on."

The site has a page set up that's aggregating all the Morning News' coverage, plus it has started chats that allow readers to ask questions and get information from a public health angle.

"At the same time, we're also looking at other public health concerns," Yasmin said, including flu season and the enterovirus.

The larger lessons from Yasmin's presence and work at the Morning News are about the value of subject matter experts and what news organizations can do to work with and develop them, Huang said.

"We've talked about it here," he said. "It's just a really odd coincidence that we have a former disease detective here."

When she started at the newspaper in May, Yasmin never thought this story would start in Dallas.

"I thought it would be London," she said. "I thought it would be Toronto. I did not think it would be Dallas."


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