In crisis, media coverage should be focused on solutions

Ebola survivor William Poopei worships at his local church in Paynesville, Liberia. The campaign, #ISurvivedEbola shares the personal stories of people who sought early treatment and survived the virus. The aim was to communicate critical public health messages and address the stigma the survivors faced upon returning from successful treatment. Photo by: Morgana Wingard / #ISurvivedEbola / CC BY

Sensationalist media coverage of global crisis and conflict is nothing new. Stigmatizing coverage often accelerates donor and policymaker fatigue. But the alternative — sharing human stories that communicate the realities of crises — encourages local and global audiences to take steps to effect change. The approach also amplifies solutions, empowers residents, and drives stakeholders, donors and policymakers to act more quickly.

The team at Stier Forward has been engaged in peace efforts in the world’s deadliest conflict in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo for years. The decades-long conflict in eastern Congo, like the early months of the recent Ebola outbreak, suffered setbacks from stigmatizing and sensationalist global media coverage.

When the Ebola outbreak began in Guinea the spring of 2014, the immediate global media response was harmful to those most in need of treatment. By the fall of 2014, headlines of increasing death counts, stories of an out-of-control outbreak, images of corpses and medical workers wearing the spacesuit-like Personal Protective Equipment, had dominated media coverage for months.

Instead of solutions-oriented coverage, fresh stigmatizing images and narratives of West Africa spread rapidly through the global media. The overall lack of critical public health communications that would encourage individuals to seek Ebola treatment at the first sign of symptoms was one of the biggest challenges facing those working to end the outbreak.

A new challenge then emerged; the often harsh stigma awaiting individuals who successfully returned from treatment to their communities and jobs. Fear and misinformation spread to billions as the virus infected thousands throughout Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea and beyond.

In an effort to address this challenge, the Stier Forward team designed and executed the #ISurvivedEbola campaign. The centerpiece of the campaign was a documentary series featuring the stories of 30 Ebola survivors across Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.

The goal was to communicate public health messages to influence large-scale participation in Ebola Treatment Units and to address the stigma Ebola survivors faced upon returning from successful treatment. Our local campaign managers and U.S.-based filmmakers went to the ETUs to find Ebola survivors who might be willing to participate in the campaign.

The documentary series launched on December 2, 2014, and had released two stories per country by the first week of January 2015. The campaign generated over 300 media mentions during the five-week roll out. In tracking media coverage, we saw the narrative begin to shift towards survivorship, treatment and solutions with appearances in media outlets such as BBC World News, CNN, NBC and France’s RFI.

Campaign launches followed in each country. We invited local nongovernmental organizations, public health and development agencies and local media outlets in each country. One by one, the brave women and men who participated in the campaign talked about their experiences before, during and after their Ebola treatment. These raw testimonials filled a void in the understanding of those present as to how to more effectively engage in the Ebola response.

After the campaign officials from the CDC chose to fund community sensitizations with the #ISurvivedEbola campaign films; Red Cross staff commented on the positive impact the films were having on staff-survivor rapport; and leaders from local NGOs joined the effort to distribute survivor stories, embedding the campaign in their daily work.

We are never done digging, learning and reflecting. Although we identify similarities of conflict and crisis, and jump to share best practices in hopes of helping our colleagues, this can come at a price. The development community can do better to inject context into crisis. A human story reveals the often-unexpected solutions being discovered and lived each day, without sanitizing the often harsh realities of life during a crisis. The concept for #ISurvivedEbola came from Liberia. We listened and took-action.

Conflict in Context is a monthlong global conversation on conflict, transition and recovery hosted by Devex in partnership with Chemonics, Cordaid, Mercy Corps, OSCE and USAID. We’ll decode the challenges and highlight the opportunities countries face while in crisis and what the development community is doing to respond. Visit the campaign site and join the conversation using #ConflictinContext.

About the author

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    JD Stier

    JD Stier is a film producer and campaign director. He has extensive experience in the field, community organizing, and recently served in the White House under President Barack Obama. JD is the president of Stier Forward, a multiplatform social change agent.

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