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Syracuse University disinvites Washington Post photographer because he was in Liberia 3 weeks ago

The Washington Post photojournalist Michel du Cille took this photo Sept. 13 of a sick child that health workers called Cynthia in Monrovia, Liberia. Du Cille, who has returned from Liberia, was asked by Syracuse University not to attend a journalism workshop. (Photo by Michel du Cille/The Washington Post)

Washington Post photojournalist Michel du Cille, who returned from covering the Ebola epidemic in Liberia 21 days ago, has been disinvited by Syracuse University from participation in a journalism workshop this weekend.

Du Cille and his wife, Nikki Kahn, both Pulitzer prize-winning Post photojournalists, were scheduled to take part in portfolio reviews and critique sessions at the university’s Newhouse School of Public Communications. The school’s dean, Lorraine Branham, said a student who was researching du Cille prior to the workshop found out he had recently returned from Liberia and expressed concern. Provost Eric Spina spoke with health officials and made the call.

“It’s a disappointment to me,” du Cille said. “I’m pissed off and embarrassed and completely weirded out that a journalism institution that should be seeking out facts and details is basically pandering to hysteria.”

In September, du Cille and Post reporter Lenny Bernstein went to Liberia to cover the health crisis in West Africa. Du Cille said he was there for two weeks. And although he has been around the bodies of people who died from Ebola, for the past three weeks he has shown no symptoms of the disease. Du Cille returned home exactly 21 days ago, the incubation period established by the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention. That entire time, he said he has been following CDC protocol, monitoring his temperature twice a day, “but I’ve been taking it almost every hour when I’m at home.” He has now reached the end of that monitoring period.

But when he and his wife were preparing to travel Thursday to New York, they got a call from Syracuse University asking them not to come.

“I made the decision,” Spina said. “Even though the risk of exposure is low, the fact that we’re responsible for the health and safety our students, faculty and staff gave us pause. We really don’t want to start a panic at our university or in our community. We certainly value this reporter’s work. Our faculty and students really value that relationship. We didn’t want to do this, but we thought it best to proceed with an abundance of caution.”

Du Cille said in a post on his Facebook page that the university missed a teachable moment amid the Ebola hype.

The most disappointing part of this bad decision is the disservice to the fine journalism students at Syracuse’s Newhouse School. What a missed opportunity to teach future media professionals how to seek out accurate hard facts; backed up with full details about the Ebola crisis. I guess it is easier to pull the hysteria and xenophobia cards.

“I think there’s still an opportunity to have that teachable moment when the risk to faculty and staff is lesser,” Branham said. “I know Michel was angry about it. I think the key point was that it has been exactly 21 days today. And the 21-day thing, some suggest the incubation period should be longer. We knew how parents would react. We knew how faculty and staff would react. We thought it was better to err on the side of caution.”

Spina and Branham said du Cille will be invited back at a later date.

Still, du Cille said the Ebola panic has gotten “grossly” out of hand.

“My initial reaction was, ‘Maybe I can talk to them and walk them through how you catch Ebola.’ But none of that mattered in the end,” he said. “The most disappointing thing is that the students at Syracuse have missed that moment to learn about the Ebola crisis, using someone who has been on the ground and seen it up close. But they chose to pander to hysteria.”