The Poynter Institute Friday hosted a group of African journalists visiting the U.S. for training as part of the State Department’s Edward R. Murrow Program.
The visit, which will continue next week, was originally scheduled to take place at the University of South Florida at St. Petersburg, which backed out of hosting the journalists due to concerns about spread of the Ebola virus.
One of the visiting journalists, Bernard Avle, said he wasn’t upset by the university’s decision. I asked Avle, who’s director of news programming at Ghanian radio outlet CITI, about his reaction to the sudden change of plans and his observations of U.S. media’s coverage of the Ebola outbreak.
Poynter: Coming from Ghana, what have you noticed about the perception of the epidemic here?
Avle: I got an email from a student — this was like a week before we came here — saying that USF St. Pete had canceled because of parents’ fears that there was Ebola, and they weren’t really sure if we’d pass that onto their wards.
I was a bit surprised — but then again, coming to the U.S. and watching U.S. media, I understood where the apprehension came from. I think the media is a very powerful tool for information and misinformation — and regrettably, I think, on this particular point — there’s been a lot of hysterical reporting, for whatever reason.
I think there’s a lot of ignorance of Ebola, of public health issues, and that has contributed to the public concern. So I have no problems with the parents who requested USF St. Pete to cancel. Because if I were a parent and I saw the reports I did on TV, I would be very concerned for my ward.
Poynter: What advice would you give to United States media organizations that are trying to cover this thing compassionately and accurately?
Avle: I can’t pretend to give advice. What I can say is they know their audience better than I do. And so the interest of your audience can sometimes drive the way you cover a story, because news must be contextualized.
So the concern for people is whether Africans are bringing Ebola to the U.S, so that tends to become the angle from which you frame the story. Having said that, you need to get more information about what happens on the ground so that you can give your listeners, your readers, your viewers the information. I’m not going to advise anybody on how to cover Ebola, but I’ll just say there’s a lot you can learn from journalists who are closer to the situation.
Poynter: How is your news organization covering the epidemic?
Avle: We are physically close (to an Ebola-affected country, Liberia). There has been research done that says Ghana is susceptible to getting Ebola because we seem to be the center for West Africa — lots of movement in and out. But the government has put into place — I wouldn’t say extremely stringent — but reasonably stringent checks for people coming into the country.
There’s an Ebola isolation center, there’s videos of what to do if you see somebody with Ebola. Everybody’s weighing in to try to inform people better. So on my show, for example, we had a whole hashtag we used for many weeks called “#EbolaFacts.” And people were sort of following along and getting more information.
Poynter: Given the mediums that you work with primarily, radio and online, what are some other things you do?
Avle: We do video, for example, if you interview health officials, talk through how you simulate an Ebola case if somebody presents with Ebola. We have videos we put online that are quite educative. We do interviews and make the audio available on Soundcloud, people listen. We translate into the local language — our show is in English, by the way. And then you have phone-ins. People send messages.
We have a WhatsApp number, people send lots of information to us. In my country, people like to report things to the media before it even gets to the police. So if somebody sees something odd, they’d be more likely to send the information to a radio station then they would a police station. And there are historical reasons for that. So we almost become this conduit between the public and the government.
Editor’s note: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.