The Media’s Impact on Ebola

Ebola has swept West Africa since first killing 23 Guineans in March 2014, stirring a sensationalist frenzy across the media, local populations, and the international community. Hospitals have closed, local health care workers have gone on strike, and aid workers have been attacked. The pandemonium generated by public fear has facilitated the disease’s spread, and can be partially blamed on the local media; the media’s tendency to publish gross speculations is a primary instigator of the current chaos.

While Ebola is a pressing issue that warrants the full attention of the international community, the frenzy surrounding the virus should be checked by two key facts:

  1. While this is the largest Ebola outbreak in history, it has witnessed one of the highest survival rates: 48% of victims survive compared to the survival rates of previous Ebola outbreaks that were as low as 10%.
  1. The number of Ebola victims is small when compared to the toll of other diseases and the overall size of the general population. Liberia, with a population of 4 million, has 1,698 cases of Ebola (403 confirmed, 815 probable, and 480 suspected) including 871 deaths, meaning that only approximately 0.042% of the Liberian population has had Ebola. The affected population is quite small when compared to the region’s other main killers like malaria, HIV/AIDS, and diarrhea. The Economist reported that 404 people die per day of diarrhea in Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria, and Sierra Leone, compared to the 4 person daily death rate of Ebola. The daily death rates of malaria and HIV/AIDS are even higher, at 552 and 685 respectively.

The question thus becomes, how does Ebola cause a level of hysteria that shuts down an entire nation like it has in Liberia? I spent this past summer in Liberia interning for an iNGO focusing on media capacity building, and found that the answer partially lies in the local media’s tendency to publish rumors and hearsay.

An example of this type of content and language comes from a well-known press initiative called Daily Talk, which presents local and national stories on a chalkboard outside of a small shack on a central street in the capital Monrovia. The initiative is quite popular as it presents news to a Liberian population that often does not have reliable access to information or widespread literacy. It addresses these problems through the use of symbols like a UN helmet to signal a UN-related story, and the writing of news headlines in Liberian English, which passersby often read aloud to the illiterate. The presentation attempts to provide the factual and community issue-based information desperately needed to improve Liberia’s general discourse and mobilize public health initiatives.

While a giant chalkboard is a clever method to present information to the uninformed, there is a major flaw. The concept overly relies on a writer’s ability to frame the highlighted news without bias. The medium itself limits all reporting to what can be written large enough for drivers and walkers to see on a chalkboard. These requirements parse all stories into a sentence or phrase. A thorough or fair expression of news is thus nearly impossible.

On the day I met Daily Talk’s founder Alfred Sirleaf (no known relation to Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf), Daily Talk’s chalkboard headline was questioning the Liberian government in an accusatory manner on where Ebola prevention aid was being spent. While questions on spending are good to ask in Liberia considering the country’s corruption problem, Daily Talk’s challenge was written with no evidence or logic to support it. The chalkboard’s question merely existed to accuse without attempting to seek truth. Such practices, with no guidance from supporting facts or access to further information, promote wild speculation, especially when the question is presented by a news outlet that many Liberians in the capital have come to rely on. Their inherent and perceived credibility, small as it may be, legitimizes the questions they present.

When challenged on the problematic question Daily Talk was posing, Alfred Sirleaf merely countered “Where there is smoke, there is often fire.” He did not respond by citing any facts or reports. He simply claimed that the government had not defended itself from the accusatory question he was asking and therefore the government must be hiding something. He continued by noting that these questions would be left up for contemplation until the government did respond or another story replaced it.

This “where there is smoke, there is often fire” attitude is not rare in Liberia’s media. This mentality often perpetuates baseless, accusatory questions in the public discourse. A recent example of this comes from an article published in a main Liberian newspaper, The Daily Observer, titled “Ebola, AIDS Manufactured By Western Pharmaceuticals, US DoD?” The author, Dr. Cyril Broderick, explores this question through five assertions backed by unrelated articles, problematic sources, or nothing at all. He provides “evidence” for his second point—“Ebola has a terrible history, and testing has been secretly taking place in Africa”—by first describing Ebola deaths detailed in The Hot Zone by Richard Preston, the nonfiction account of Ebola’s history. After this description, Dr. Broderick cites Dr. Leonard G. Horowitz, another author who argues that Ebola was manufactured, as chiding Preston for “writing to be politically correct.” The reader is then left to his or her own devices to understand how Dr. Horowitz’s comment proves that the detailed descriptions of the original Ebola victims in The Hot Zone are proof that West Africa is the West’s Ebola testing ground. Dr. Broderick continues his article in a similar fashion by citing a study from Global Research, an organization that also published an article arguing that 9/11 was planned by the American elite.

Unfortunately, articles like Dr. Broderick’s commonly circulate in Liberia’s local media. Yes, tough questions must be asked, but there is a responsibility to not incite undue mistrust and to ground all questions, especially those that carry an assumption of wrongdoing, in evidence and logic. Accusations legitimized through publication heighten mistrust.

This mistrust has led to violence against healthcare and aid workers, who have been driven from communities with knives and machetes. In West Point, Liberia’s largest slum located in the capitol city of Monrovia, residents chased away an Ebola victim burial team shouting, “No Ebola in West Point.” The community either denied the existence of Ebola or thought of the virus as a government conspiracy. Rumors like these were commonplace when I lived in Monrovia. They become strengthened through mass dissemination and the credibility gained through publication. The public is then mobilized through misinformation. This tendency is especially high in a post-conflict zone like Liberia, where the 14-year civil war ending in 2003 still fills the country with memories of violence and distrust.

In the coming months, the local media must be held accountable for misinformation and the dissemination of wild speculations. The Ebola outbreak cannot be overcome when medical aid and prevention workers like burial teams are driven away from infected communities. Providing accurate information and dispelling rumors is as crucial as providing the medical aid itself. The press must guard themselves from speculation, intrigue, and rumors to prevent further violence and to bolster Liberia’s capacity to handle further crises.

Photo by Chris Guillebeau/ CC BY-SA 3.0 

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