Media and the culture of panic …when irresponsible journalism meets a public health nightmare.

By Kim Young
I thought it was just me. Luckily at least one Canadian media house identified, the Globe and the Mail.
While I flipped through several news channels when the first case of Ebola was diagnosed in the US, I could hardly change the channel before I heard the words, “Ebola, Liberia, Eric Duncan, deadly and unclear CDC guidelines”. The 24 hr news cycle had gone mad. Obliterated from the news were reports about global affairs, international relations, war and politics or a sensible discussion on public health. The entire day was spent speculating, accusing, conjuring up panic, cooking a soup of fear from which the public was to drink copious amounts and drown in an abyss of misinformation.
In just one day, the media blocked the reality of thousands dying of Ebola in West Africa to focus on the one US diagnosed case of Ebola and on a man who, like me and like you, just wanted to stay alive. Whether he intentionally or unintentionally took Ebola to the US was not nearly important to me as whether he lived and was able to be reunited with his family. After all, two US citizens had already contracted the disease overseas and lived to share their plasma with others who also were diagnosed and lived.
In between the constant drama of sound and images that spoke of “Breaking News’ that was nothing but a repetition of what I knew two days earlier, the media speculated on whether the US was prepared for Ebola and in the process was able to panic an entire population into buying PPE equipment or for others to live in blissful ignorance poking fun and abusing those who now reside in the US who hail from West Africa.
This should be no surprise. Fear and ignorance breed prejudice but any responsible journalist would know that fanning the flames of fear would surely cause the uninformed and anxious to shun and abuse the people who they believe to be responsible for bringing the scourge of Ebola to their land. We heard that Eric Duncan’s girlfriend could not find an apartment, revealed to us by her pastor who presumably had no accommodation to offer either. We heard of Liberians in New York who were being verbally attacked and then suddenly, we heard nothing more.
The nurses go home, the story ends
Once Nina Pham, Amber Vinson and Dr. Spencer and the NBC journalist had left hospital alive and well, we were not subjected to hours of watching a motorcade of ambulances and security forces, airlifts and patients surrounded by doctors in Hazmat suits walking to private jets…all of a sudden, we heard nothing. The word Ebola disappeared, along with it, the sense of urgency and need for the international world to respond to an international emergency that threatens thousands of lives in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea. In fact, Sierra Leone says that Ebola is spreading nine times faster than previously anticipated. No more about the speechless Ebola Czar, no one seems to care. I do know that behind the scenes there is an international effort but the WHO says it is not enough.
When the nurses and doctors were released, thank God, it become a huge Kodak moment and PR stunt. We wish all of them well and Godspeed but West Africa needs millions of dollars from international aid bodies.
Suddenly, the US media in particular remained glued to the US elections, understandably, and to the new scourge called ISIS. Forgotten was the Ebola crisis in another continent ravaging the lives and future of thousands of children, wrecking economies and leaving death, destruction and despair in its wake.
When I was training as a journalist, we were always told that the heart of the news was in how we could bring the story to the people and assist however we could in bringing a resolution to the matter. Those days are over. The 24 hr news cycle is concerned with profit and not necessarily people anymore. Sure, we make the story but only if we are infectious, only if we kill in cold blood, only if we are murdered, only if we are controversial.
So if WHO says that possibly 1.4 million people could be infected with Ebola and I ask why the media has gone cold on this story, please forgive me. I actually care that this deadly illness is killing people in Africa much as I care that Malaria kills around half million in Africa as well.
Since when was Ebola sexy?
Is Ebola sexy? Is it so scary that once a citizen of a Western country is infected that this is when the story merits real analysis and exposure? Is Ebola so scary that we rather hide? Is it a bit of both? Do we think that anything bad comes from Africa and are afraid to say it?
Recently in Barbados, a man alleged that a media house owner refused to take his money for an advertisement and verbally abused him. The man took his story to another newspaper and said that the owner of the newspaper who refused his money said that he didn’t want it on the basis that the man was Nigerian and mentioned Ebola and referred to him as “you people”. This is a black man.
I was aghast to read this but what was more telling was the lack of outcry from Barbadians. The man had advertised for a Nigerian cook to come to Barbados and cook authentic Nigerian meals for his restaurant. Our immigration laws allow this once a suitable national for the post cannot be found. To the best of my knowledge, the man had not been diagnosed with Ebola and being Nigerian cannot be the basis to not take his money but it is the man’s business house so he can do what he wishes.
Fear and ignorance
I have had other experiences, while attempting to collect monies from a friend born in Nigeria, I was told by a money transfer service in Barbados that “the money is under review”. When I asked on what basis, the young woman told me that “well you know the Nigerians, there is a lot of money laundering and fraud…” I stopped her dead in her tracks. When last I checked, had we not all been dragged to these parts as slaves, we would be in Africa or some other part of the world and I vehemently stood my ground. Within minutes the money was released. There was no reason to review it other than the ignorance and prejudice of my own people. Is the media any more sensitive? I think not.
Public health requires a strategic approach towards achieving containment and recovery, it involves working to educate the population on how to avoid infection no matter where the illness exists be it the Bubonic plague or Ebola. If we are still going to “black out” the story because it comes from a Country that we still see as poor and without the necessary public health infrastructure with expendable people then we may be in for a surprise. I hope not. The US has been struggling with the Enterovirus D68 which has killed several children and sickened hundreds but the story is not sexy. I have not heard anything more on this either and this has hit a different demographic but then it is a strange, mysterious airborne flu so no need to panic…seriously?
Forgive me if I have a problem with illnesses like MERS being named after a region or people in which it shows up – Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome mostly seen in people from Saudi Arabia. We must address the illness and not those who have the illness as media and as health care providers.
The media and public health officials, scientists, doctors have a responsibility to educate and do so responsibly, they have a responsibility to tell the story without the sensationalism, without the “sexiness” just to make ratings or scoop a competitor.
When last I checked, dying isn’t sexy!

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