When reports of Ebola first started coming out in late March, Liberian journalists — like most people in the country — didn’t understand the highly infectious disease or its potential severity.
Sensational headlines abounded — stories focused on Ebola’s impact on people’s sex lives, the fact that they could no longer eat their favorite bush meat or that homosexuals were responsible for the epidemic, Maureen Sieh, senior media specialist for IREX’s Civil Society and Media Leadership Program in Liberia, said Sept. 18 during an event hosted by the international nonprofit in Washington, D.C.
Amid heightened response from the world’s largest multilateral and bilateral donors to help stop the spread of the disease and calls for better civil society engagement with government, an area where there’s still much room for improvement is communication around in-country containment efforts — especially by the local population.
Even as Ebola continues to make international headlines, communication breakdowns at the local level not only stall health workers’ efforts, but also further instill fear and perpetuate rumors in communities, while providing little to no explanation of how people can protect themselves from contracting the virus.
Better information delivered by trusted institutions in partnership with the government is absolutely crucial to address the crisis.
No critical thinking skills
The current state of the media in Liberia is the consequence of a ruinous civil war and a deplorable education system that has suffered for years, Sieh explained.
Many local journalists grew up during the war and were forced to leave high school or college, so some are barely able to write and most lack critical thinking skills. Health care is also not regularly reported in the country.
As the crisis descended, “the only way to explain was to be more sensational,” the IREX expert said. “I think that’s why the disease took the turn that it did.”
Misreporting only fueled instances of Liberian citizens not allowing Ebola health workers into infected homes or insisting on local medicine for self-treatment, and a large Liberian diaspora community took to social media to advocate that President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf step down, contributing to a runaway rumor mill and fears of political instability in times of crisis.
To combat those stories based on few facts and even fewer sources, as well as the violence and civil unrest the reports can potentially provoke, IREX’s media program in Liberia expanded in July its efforts to help reporters increase their understanding of Ebola and “change the storyline.”
“What’s reported in U.S. media, I wish it was reported in Liberian media,” Sieh said.
Getting the facts out
Sieh also called for increased government participation in providing the kind of information necessary for reporters to do their job.
There was no news conference called, for example, to announce or explain the placement of an Ebola holding facility for suspected cases in Monrovia’s impoverished West Point district — a decision that angered residents and led to looting and a government-imposed lockdown of the slum area.
Thus, as a contingent of 3,000 U.S. soldiers prepared to be deployed in the region in late September, the dissemination of real facts was as important as ever.
“Already we are starting to hear misreporting,” Sieh said of the military’s presence, which in a local context could easily turn to talk of airstrikes and guns, when the core of the 3,000-troop U.S. mission in Liberia will be medical — building treatment centers and training medical staff by the hundreds to run them.
Media will play a critical role in expressing this, Sieh said. But in the meantime, she is asking Liberian reporters to be granted the same kind of access to areas and information that international journalists have.
“Not everyone can read the New York Times or watch CNN,” Sieh added, referring to the large population outside of Monrovia with little to no access to the Internet or a TV.
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