On June 3, the international humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders issued a news release with a stark headline: “Resurgence of Epidemic Ebola in West Africa.” A day later, the World Health Organization declared the outbreak one of the deadliest ever, with 223 victims in three countries.
Neither announcement caused much of a stir in newsrooms across the United States.
The Associated Press moved a 315-word dispatch about the developments. The New York Times carried a brief editorial a few days later (“the outbreaks will require a large educational effort to alert people to the dangers” of the virus, it decorously advised). No U.S. television network said a word about it, according to the Nexis database.
Three weeks later, Doctors Without Borders issued another, more urgent communique. “Ebola in West Africa: Epidemic requires massive deployment of resources,” read the headline. “The epidemic is out of control,” declared the organization’s director of operations, Bart Janssens. The WHO weighed in at month’s end. It tallied 467 victims — twice the count at the start of the month — in Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia, making the outbreak by far the largest on record. The organization urged “drastic action” to contain it.
The news media’s reaction this time was bigger, but hardly big. CNN did a brief segment on the emerging scourge on June 25, as did CBS, ABC and PBS’s “NewsHour.” NPR’s “Morning Edition” devoted four minutes to the developments. The Washington Post blogged about it and wrote an editorial. Among the handful of American newspapers that mentioned the disease over the following 10 days, only the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the Herald-Sun in Durham, N.C., accorded front-page play to the topic.
And then, for the next few weeks, the story largely faded from view again.
As the death toll climbed past 1,000 and new infections emerged each day, little was heard about Ebola in the American news media. Outside of the wire services, no domestic news organization sent a reporter to the affected region until after July 4. By the end of the month, only NPR and the New York Times had correspondents in the field.
News about the Ebola crisis has been inescapable in the U.S. media for the past two months or so. But the outbreak incubated and grew into a crisis without much attention. Most major news organizations, including The Post and the Times, reported on it sporadically; none gave much prominence to the stories.
A few major outlets — NBC, Fox News, Time, the Los Angeles Times — reported nothing for months as the disease jumped borders and international aid organizations issued ever more alarmed calls for help.
The coverage languished even as the disease reached milestone after grim milestone: the first outbreak in an urban area; the first to cross international borders; the greatest number of infections and deaths since Ebola was identified in 1976.
“I was screaming and yelling about it back in May, and I was stunned by how little interest there was,” said Laurie Garrett, a global health expert at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former reporter who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1996 for her coverage of an Ebola outbreak in what was then the Republic of Zaire. “I was frustrated. . . . There were so few people on the story. There weren’t enough people keeping their eyes on the prize.”
The question — purely hindsight now — is whether it would have mattered if there had been.
Would sustained and earlier news coverage by the American media have made any difference in the fight against Ebola? Could the news media have mobilized public opinion earlier to compel the response, including U.S. military intervention, that the Obama administration is only now marshalling?
Some of those involved in fighting the disease suggest it could have. “We felt like in May, June or early July that we had an opportunity to stop this disease. But we couldn’t get the attention we needed,” said Ken Isaacs, vice president of programs and government relations at Samaritan’s Purse, a North Carolina-based relief organization that is involved in Ebola-treatment efforts. “The media can create public interest by what it decides to cover, and the gravity of this disease was not represented by the media coverage” in the spring and early summer.
The media’s inattention to the Ebola story appears to have been a result of multiple factors. Most significant was that the outbreak came at an inconvenient time, at least for news organizations: The disease began to spread as other big international stories were capturing the attention — and limited resources — of media outlets. Among others, there was the Russia-Ukraine conflict; the rise of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq; the Israel-Palestinian clash in Gaza; and the World Cup in Brazil.
Journalists acknowledge that other stories took a higher priority than the developing catastrophe in West Africa.
“My argument is that, as great as our resources are, we still can’t do everything,” said Dean Baquet, the executive editor of the New York Times. “We can’t do 100 stories on Ebola when there are 50 other important topics to cover. There’s a limited number of stories we can cover that way, and that’s just reality. It’s not just about the expense. It’s the attention of the editors, too.”
Added Baquet, “Of course, if we had all known how the story was going to evolve, we would have covered it sooner. But I don’t think anyone quite saw how big it would be. If we had, we would have jumped on it sooner. As it was, I would argue that the press moved more quickly than the government. I think you could make the case that we did influence the government.”
Kevin Merida, The Post’s managing editor for news, said, “There was never a lack of interest in the Ebola story. We recognized that this was a major medical crisis growing in significance. We struggled initially to get someone on the ground, as our Africa correspondent was deployed on an ambitious project and other logical candidates were [covering] other important stories. . . . So for a while we did the best we could to report on Ebola with our resources in Washington.” Merida points to “the breadth, ambition and momentum of our work since August.”
The remote location of the outbreak — primarily rural areas of underdeveloped nations — presented a perception issue, too; earlier outbreaks had flared in such locations and quickly burned out. “As long as it appeared to be something afflicting isolated, remote rural areas in Africa, as in the past, it was not a huge story,” said Adam Nossiter, the Times’ bureau chief in West and Central Africa.
But Nossiter noticed something different about this outbreak at the end of June: resistance by villagers in Guinea to outside intervention, complicating efforts to contain the virus. In early July, he traveled to Conakry, Guinea’s capital, and then to the forest region near Gueckedou, to investigate. He filed his first story from the region on July 12; it was published on July 28 on the Times’ front page, marking the first time the outbreak received such prominent treatment by the newspaper.
Some of the American media’s indifference to the story may have reflected entrenched attitudes toward Africa, said A. Trevor Thrall, the director of George Mason’s biodefense graduate program. “Thanks to low public interest in Africa and the fact that very few U.S. news organizations have any footprint in Africa, Africa is more or less invisible in the U.S. media most of the time,” he said. “With a few exceptions, Africa shows up only when something happens that directly affects Americans or when the U.S. government takes some kind of action.”
As it happens, the story’s trajectory changed dramatically on July 27, when news services reported that two American missionaries in Liberia, Texas doctor Kent Brantly and medical worker Nancy Writebol of North Carolina, had been diagnosed with the virus.
Suddenly, outlets that had shown little interest in Ebola before — from “Good Morning America” to local TV stations — were reporting about Brantly and Writebol and the scourge sweeping West Africa. Their evacuation to a specially equipped hospital at Emory University was widely covered for days.
The news of the first patient being brought to the hospital received car chase-like treatment on CNN, which broadcast live aerial images of an ambulance driving to the hospital.
For some television journalists, an early barrier to covering the story was finding a way to make it visually compelling and “relevant” to viewers, said Richard Besser, ABC’s chief health and medical editor. Two years ago, Besser, a physician, covered an Ebola outbreak in Uganda by embedding with epidemiologists from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention who were hunting for new cases. But when Besser, himself an epidemiologist, reached out to the CDC in the spring, he was told that the agency intended to send only data specialists to West Africa to set up a case-monitoring system. “From my side, that’s not very interesting TV,” Besser said. “The visuals of someone sitting at a laptop don’t really work for a minute and a half or two minutes of network TV.”
But once the two Americans became sick in late July and returned to the United States, “it definitely became a major story. It made it easier to relate to the story and made it more relevant to people’s lives.”
A week later, Isaacs of Samaritan’s Purse, which employed Brantly, told a House subcommittee hearing that “it took two Americans getting the disease in order for the international community and the United States to take serious notice” of the epidemic.
Overall, however, Thrall says the news media were somewhat ahead of the government in paying attention to the disease. But once the government got involved, media interest took off, he said. On Aug. 8, the WHO called the outbreak a “public health emergency,” providing a fresh boost to news coverage. The story spiked again in early September when President Obama pledged U.S. military support to fight the disease. And it spiked again Sept. 23 when the CDC projected as many as 1.4 million infections in West Africa by January.
Thrall says each spike was predictable. “The U.S. news media tend to take their lead from the U.S. government,” he said, “especially on scientific or medical issues that journalists need expert help to understand. . . . Without decisive U.S. government action or concern, it can be difficult for news organizations to keep stories alive.”
Which is why Thrall thinks it’s unrealistic to have expected the news media to have devoted more attention to the virus earlier: Because government officials were not seriously alarmed or engaged until August, the media could not have known just how devastating the Ebola outbreak would be. It was the government, not the media, he said, that misjudged the severity of the outbreak.
“The early press coverage was perfectly responsible,” Thrall said. “It only looks problematic looking back because public-health experts predicted that the outbreak would be limited like all previous Ebola outbreaks. Journalists all heard the same thing early on — Ebola is incredibly fatal but relatively straightforward to contain. . . . Even if a journalist had somehow suspected it would be worse, there is no way to track these diseases except on the ground through the public-health system, so there is no way journalists could have known any sooner than public-health officials what was happening.”