Ebola virus disease is a terrifying ailment. After transmission, symptoms start two to 21 days later. The often-deadly disease usually begins with a fever and progresses to more serious symptoms, such as internal and external bleeding. Even more terrifying, the disease is caused by a virus that’s invisible to the naked eye.
As a health writer, I watched since early this year as reports of the current Ebola virus disease outbreak trickle out of West Africa. Fear and anxiety spread among Americans as it became clear that the disease would eventually reach the U.S.
While the Code of Ethics is clear that ethical journalism ensures the free exchange of information that is accurate, fair and thorough, Americans were on the receiving end of journalism during the past couple months that often failed to meet those standards.
The truth is that a person can’t develop Ebola virus disease unless they come in direct contact with an infected person’s bodily fluids, such as blood, vomit or semen. Vox offers information on Ebola virus disease here: http://bit.ly/1wYFa2w.
While many people wave off irresponsible journalism as the result of the digital world hungry for constant content, reports that lead to more questions than answers may also lead to harm.
First, there are the people with Ebola virus disease. There is a gray area whenever journalists deal with people suffering from an illness – especially a contagious disease. By releasing those patients’ names, will it affect their livelihood? Will this information put them at risk in some way? How will their family be affected by the news coverage? Simply put: do the benefits of releasing this information outweigh the harm it may cause?
Second, there is the general U.S. public, who – for the most part – only know of Ebola virus disease through the stories and images they received in years past from Africa. Journalists have the responsibility to act and provide accurate answers through thorough reporting. It’s not the job of journalists to drum up unwarranted fear or concern.
Unlike many countries in Africa, the U.S. is in a much better position to control any cases of the Ebola virus disease. While there are challenges and errors, the journalists reporting on Ebola should not consider the situations comparable.
The most recent poll from the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found about a third of adults in the U.S. are at least “somewhat worried” that someone in their family will be exposed to the Ebola virus.
In addition to the wear and tear of general anxiety, the potential harm of unchecked rumors and fear among the general public can be seen in U.S. history books. Fear and uncertainty over the transmission of HIV in 1987 led to a ban on people infected with the virus, which causes AIDS, from entering the U.S. The ban stayed on the books until 2009, a year after then-President George W. Bush began the repeal process.
Fortunately, health officials, health experts, journalists and the general U.S. population are in a better position than they were during the beginning of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Ebola virus disease is not new. The first outbreak occurred in 1976, according to the World Health Organization. People know how the virus spreads and how to give people infected with it the best chance at survival.
As with any topic, journalists with questions about Ebola virus disease or possible cases in communities should do what they always do – ask questions and provide accurate information.
For more information, I encourage reporters to always refer to the Code of Ethics. Additionally, the statement of principles from the Association of Health Care Journalists provides guidance to people covering health care.