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10 Tips: A correspondent’s guide to reporting on Ebola

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Fri, 22 Aug 2014 14:33 PM
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Misha Hussain, the Dakar-based correspondent of the Thomson Reuters Foundation, has been covering Ebola in West Africa, and in early April was the first foreign reporter to reach the epicentre of the virus outbreak in Gueckedou, Guinea. He offers advice to journalists heading to cover the Ebola story.

1. UNDERSTAND THE ILLNESS

Ebola is a haemorrhagic fever that can be fatal in up to 90 percent of cases. The virus spreads through contact with blood, body fluids or tissue from an infected person. The illness is characterised by flu-like symptoms and progresses to internal and external bleeding, leading to organ failure. Experimental vaccines and treatments exist. Do the research, so you can hit the ground running.

Here are some facts about Ebola.

2. DISSECT THE JARGON

What’s a zoonotic disease? What’s the difference between virus and bacteria? What do scientists mean when they talk about the Zaire strain, or the viral load and incubation period? Understand the basic scientific terms and jargon, so you can write clearly for your audience.

3. PUT A FACE ON THE DISEASE

Ebola causes great human suffering, which facts and figure can’t show. Paint the picture for your audience, colouring in details on geography, history, politics and culture – the things that make us human, so your audience can connect with the people affected by the illness, whether it's an Ebola victim, a tired health worker, or a worried member of the public.

Meet Rose Komono, the first Ebola survivor in Gueckedou.

4. BE SENSITIVE

Remember that you are reporting about people who are going through extreme pain and anguish. They may be mourning the loss of a loved one, or may be frightened about this disease. Keep their feelings in mind when you approach them to talk about Ebola.

5. ASK TOUGH QUESTIONS

Disease is political, so ask hard questions, even to the good guys. Why did governments take so long to confirm Ebola? Has the World Health Organization been slow to respond to the outbreak? Should Médecins Sans Frontières have trained other international aid organisations to deal with virus? Has the private sector helped to provide a much-needed boost for the healthcare systems? Hold everyone to account. 

6. KEEP PERSPECTIVE

Ebola is scary, but despite its high case fatality rate, it doesn’t spread very quickly. Since 1976, it has killed around 3,000 people – a tiny fraction of the death toll from malaria, HIV or influenza. One of the biggest viral threats to the global North is the annual winter flu, which claims 250,000 to 500,000 lives each year.

Read more about the 10 leading causes of death.

7. DISPEL MYTHS

Myths are the biggest obstacle to fighting Ebola, so don’t add to the panic. In Liberia, some believed that it was a punishment from the god for war. In Guinea, locals have blamed Western doctors for introducing the disease. Neither is true. An accurate and reliable report can help save lives.

This graphic shows the source of Ebola.

8. FOLLOW THE LATEST NEWS

Keep your eyes peeled and ear to the ground. Ebola isn’t spreading rapidly, but news moves fast. Flights have been cancelled and borders closed. Sierra Leone has called a state of emergency. Liberia has quarantined entire communities. Isolation leads to hardship, and conflict. Follow where the story is unfolding, assess the risks and try to tell the underreported stories.

Keep up-to-date on Ebola on trust.org.

9. LOOK FOR FRESH ANGLES

What impact does shutting down schools have on the economy? Which industries are suffering? Is anyone doing well out of the outbreak? Think laterally, and be creative. 

10. BE SAFE

Outbreak zones are akin to battlegrounds. Know how the virus spreads and take every precaution to protect yourself. Beware of local tensions. Afterwards, regularly check for symptoms and report to health authorities immediately if you believe you may be infected.

Read the U.K. government’s tips for humanitarian aid workers.

(Editing by Alisa Tang: alisa.tang@thomsonreuters.com)

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