clock menu more-arrow no yes

Reporters got a lot wrong covering Ebola. We should do better next time.

A Liberian health worker speaks with families in a classroom now used as Ebola isolation ward on August 15, 2014, in Monrovia, Liberia.
A Liberian health worker speaks with families in a classroom now used as Ebola isolation ward on August 15, 2014, in Monrovia, Liberia.
John Moore Getty Images News

We journalists often rush from one story to the next with whiplash-inducing speed — and sometimes without time to reflect. On Monday, however, a few of us paused. Just as Liberia was finally declared Ebola-free, I appeared on a panel organized by the One Campaign alongside colleagues from NPR, the Washington Post, Ebola Deeply, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Together, we looked back at how the media dealt with the epidemic. What could we have done better? What lessons did we learn? What were we most proud of? And where did our coverage go off the rails?

Since this outbreak won't be the last — and we can and should do a better job reporting on the next one — I wanted to share some thoughts.

1) The low point of the media's Ebola frenzy

kaci

Kaci Hickox at her home in Maine. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images News)

When reflecting on the low point in coverage during this crisis, Lara Setrakian, founder of Ebola Deeply, remarked that for her it probably came last summer: she was visiting Asia and saw 24/7 news footage of ambulances bringing American Ebola victims to US hospitals for treatment. She compared this to the now-iconic police chase involving OJ Simpson's white Ford Bronco in 1994, except this time, the people in the vehicles — even more absurdly — were disease victims.

Of course, there were other cringe-worthy moments during the crisis. Last fall, when Ebola health workers Kaci Hickox and Craig Spencer returned to the US after serving in West Africa, they were treated like social pariahs. Spencer fell ill with the disease, sparking panic in Manhattan, but even though Hickox had no sign of illness, she was put under a mandatory quarantine. A lot of the media coverage fed into the public fear and political fight over travel bans by, for instance, tracing Dr. Spencer's steps through Manhattan or encircling Hickox's home, wondering if she should be allowed to receive a pizza delivery.

While these journalistic nadirs were embarrassing, there was something much more dangerous going on: all of these stories took attention away from coverage at the epicenter of the outbreak in West Africa. They were distracting. They were frivolous. And, worst of all, they denigrated and discouraged the very people we should have been celebrating.

2) The problem of portraying scientific uncertainty

Ebola virus

The now very recognizable image of the Ebola virus. (CDC/Getty Images)

One of the greatest challenges while covering the science of Ebola was trying to communicate uncertainty about the virus without freaking people out.

There is a lot we know about the Ebola virus and how it's transmitted. After all, it was discovered in 1976. But it's still a relatively rare disease, and until last year, had killed a total of about 1,500 people. So there is a lot we're learning about the virus, such as how it affects survivors in the long term, or how it mutates when it infects tens of thousands of people as it did over the last year.

Some reporters did an excellent job of conveying these uncertainties while being careful not to induce panic. This piece from Joel Achenbach and Brady Dennis at the Washington Post was masterful, as was this one from Helen Branswell at the Canadian Press.

Many of us were learning about Ebola on the fly, and we couldn't always get a hold of the then over-taxed experts in this rare disease. As Jana Telfer, associate director for communication for science at the CDC, noted during the panel, prior to this outbreak her agency had very few Ebola specialists and a rather limited knowledge of a disease that wasn't a priority in America.

Many of us also wanted to calm the public, and maybe we were afraid of creating space for fear by talking about unknowns — particularly amid  frightening rumors that Ebola could go airborne.

Even so, the lesson here, perhaps, is that it's important to communicate that science is an iterative process — that it's proximate by nature and not a collection of immutable facts. It may be even more important to underscore that fact during panicked times, instead of creating a false sense of certainty that may later backfire.

3) Viruses live in people and communities

ebola

A mother and child in a classroom now used as an Ebola isolation ward in Monrovia. (John Moore/Getty)

All the reporters on the panel seemed to derive the most satisfaction from covering the stories of people whose lives were changed by this virus. These were also the stories, we felt, that most resonated and moved readers. But if you looked at the early media coverage, it could sometimes be read as dehumanizing — a collection of data and statistics about cases and deaths, a virus moving around the world separate from actual people.

There were other ethical questions about the coverage. The CDC's Telfer noted that many reporters working in West Africa disclosed patients' names and took pictures of them in a way they would generally never do while covering disease victims in America.

The challenge of being respectful, compassionate, and not exploitative while reporting was one we all felt.

To address that very issue at Vox, we launched this set of oral histories of Ebola. Many other news outlets had their own incredible — and very human pieces — such as this wonderful interactive project from NPR and the award-winning coverage from the New York Times.

But I think we were mostly rather late to these projects: many launched in the late summer or fall, already halfway through the outbreak. So the lesson here is that we need to put people first from the beginning — and do so with empathy and respect.

4) When health stories lack context, they do our readers and subjects a disservice

ebola

(Sean Gallup/Getty Images News)

Some of the worst reporting came when we forgot to give readers context. For example, we covered the fight to get ZMapp, the experimental Ebola treatment — or "secret serum," as it was called in the early days of the outbreak — to patients rather than looking at the fact that strengthening health systems would sustain many more lives.

Other times, we exoticized the subjects in our stories, focusing on their supposed penchant for "bush meat" or their strange religious rituals — instead of covering them, as NPR's Nurith Aizenman noted, just as they are: people like you and me.

Again, the lack of context diverted attention from the actual causes of the pandemic, and it had an othering effect on Ebola's victims.

5) Calming people down can be difficult — but not impossible

ebola

Lenny Bernstein, one of the Washington Post's intrepid health correspondents, noted that one of the reasons his newsroom was a little delayed in diving deeply into Ebola reporting was because of fear of the virus: people with children, for example, were hesitant about going to West Africa, should they get sick or need to be quarantined for a long period. So even the most educated — and, perhaps, audacious — among us were infected with fear and panic.

While many of us — myself included — covered the absurdity of the panic over a virus that's actually quite difficult to catch, we sometimes failed to fully think through why people were feeling this way.

Why did this particular virus invoke such fear? Why were airplane passengers in a panic? Answering these questions might have gone a long way in calming people, ourselves included. As the CDC's Telfer pointed out, you need to meet peoples' emotions with emotions — and you can't do that unless you first acknowledge how they feel.

Correction: An earlier version of this post misstated the year of the O.J. Simpson car chase.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for The Weeds

Get our essential policy newsletter delivered Fridays.