Opinion: Why it's so disappointing that j-schools are panicking over Ebola
In the last week, we've learned that three U.S. universities have canceled invitations to journalists due to fears about Ebola:
- Syracuse University rescinded an invitation to Washington Post photographer Michel du Cille because he had reported on the epidemic in Liberia, and even though he'd been home longer than the 21-day self-monitoring period and had no symptoms, "there have been questions raised about whether the incubation period is longer," Lorraine Branham, the dean of Syracuse's S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, told Donald R. Winslow of News Photographer magazine.
- The University of Georgia rescinded an invitation to Liberian journalist Wade C.L. Williams, who was due to speak at the university's Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication. “It just became abundantly clear we had a risk scenario and a situation on our hands that was a little more sensitive issue,” Grady College Dean Charles N. Davis told Brad Schrade of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
- The University of South Florida at St. Petersburg rescinded invitations to African journalists who are taking part in the U.S. State Department's Edward R. Murrow Program for Journalists. "We've cancelled out of upmost caution," Regional Vice Chancellor of Academic Affairs Han Reichgelt wrote in a letter to journalism-school faculty, students and staff.
"Caution," "questions," "sensitive" -- these are all apparently synonyms for willful disregard for facts, which is a curious fit for journalism schools, institutions that purportedly train people how to report what they know.
Here's something those schools could have gleaned from reading some journalism: Unless you're in contact with infected individuals' bodily fluids, you have almost no chance of getting Ebola. The virus could conceivably change its pattern of transmission, but as Joel Achenbach and Brady Dennis reported in The Washington Post Oct. 18, "such a major change in transmission has never been observed in a pathogen that already affects human beings."
Another fact that inconveniences panic: There have been three cases of Ebola in the U.S. so far. One of those people has died. By contrast, Max Fisher reports in Vox, 30 people die in America every year and more than 40,000 are injured from their furniture falling on them.
"Fearbola" has no place at journalism schools. There's simply too much well-reported information available to justify these jelly-spined responses. Administrators at Newhouse, Grady and USF are teaching their students a dismal lesson: If they fear criticism -- or possibly lawsuits -- they should back off, facts be damned.
Two-thirds of Americans say they are concerned about an Ebola outbreak, according to a Washington Post poll last week. Journalism schools should be training their students to battle such perceptions (seriously, you're probably going to die from heart disease or cancer). Which is why it's so disappointing to see them leading in the opposite direction.