On August 21, the Ministry of Health of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) declared an Ebola outbreak in the Beni health zone, North Kivu province. A month later, Uganda health authorities declared another outbreak in a village in central Uganda.
Five days later, 18 cases were confirmed and 18 probable cases had been reported in central Uganda, including 23 deaths. Per the World Health Organization (WHO), this was the first Ebola outbreak caused by the Sudan virus variant in Uganda since 2012.
While the outbreak in the DRC has been declared to be over, the virus is still being managed in Uganda. For journalists reporting on this outbreak and preparing for future ones, here is what to to know to stay safe and cover the topic effectively:
Symptoms and preventive measures
Knowing how to prevent the spread of Ebola while reporting on patients and their families is paramount. This will not only ensure the journalist’s safety but will also help avoid further transmissions.
The most common symptoms of the Sudan virus variant of Ebola observed in Uganda include fever, general weakness, abdominal pain, diarrhea, joint pain, vomiting and headaches. According to the WHO, one of the key ways to avoid further transmissions is by washing your hands frequently with soap and water.
In order to decrease their chances of transmitting Ebola, people should also avoid contact with bodily fluids (such as blood, semen, and mucus) of infected or recently recovered people, as well as raw meat from bats and primates.
“It is important not to touch dead bodies because they contain viruses a few hours after death, and several outbreaks in Uganda were caused by touching dead bodies at funerals while preparing them for burial,” said Otim Patrick Ramadan, an epidemiologist and WHO incident manager for Ebola response in Africa.
The importance of journalism during a crisis
During a virtual conference on October 5, Ramadan emphasized that journalists, especially local reporters, play a critical role in the face of adversity during a crisis. He stated that the public desperately needs vital information about the virus, and reporters are needed to keep citizens informed and to keep them from panicking.
Michael Gubay, senior project manager for Internews in South Sudan, challenges journalists to report on catastrophic events like outbreaks in a manner that eases tension among populations.
Here’s what Gubay suggests reporters keep in mind when covering Ebola:
Avoid saying "breaking news" when reporting on suspected cases
The media, especially on social media platforms, regularly uses the term “breaking news” when providing updates on the virus, Gubay explained. For instance, in South Sudan, one outlet reported suspected cases as breaking news, which can aggravate panic among the public and exaggerates the scale of the issue at hand.
“Using breaking news while reporting causes fear among the public; it is important to be cautious while reporting and provide solutions about the situation,” said Gubay.
He also discouraged journalists from reporting on unverified information, such as rumors that circulated on social media about new cases emerging in Kenya, Tanzania and South Sudan.
Ensure that your coverage raises awareness about the risk of Ebola and provides basic facts about the virus
Reporters should remind readers, viewers or listeners to observe standard operating procedures, focus on preventive measures and be open to learning new information about the virus.
“It is important for journalists to raise awareness to help the public embrace safety precautions by reporting on both the risks and solutions,” said Gubay.
Use socially acceptable language
Use clear, concise and well-packaged information with understandable messaging that is easy for the general public to grasp. Journalists should avoid using journalistic jargon and scientific terms that people outside of these fields may not understand.
Allow survivors to tell their stories
Allowing survivors to tell their own stories can help reduce stigmas around the virus, according to Gubay. Journalists should avoid mentioning the names of those who have been affected and the names of their family members.
For photographers covering the outbreaks, Gubay suggests not taking photos of those who are sick, and instead using photos of people who have recovered to give hope to those currently suffering from the virus.
Do your research
Before reporting on Ebola, journalists should do their own research on the virus to ensure that they are familiar with the science behind the disease and up to speed with the status of the outbreak. Incorporating background information in your reporting helps reduce information gaps.
“Triangulate and verify, fact-check all information before compiling stories,” said Gubay.
Develop a contact list full of medical professionals and other experts
Journalists should speak with health experts to ensure that they are including accurate information in their coverage. They should also be sure to attribute any outside information they receive to avoid plagiarism.
“Information should not be one-sided, journalists [should] use two to three sources to get information and avoid reporting out of context while focusing on the facts. Be allies with other journalists and medical responders,” said Gubay.