The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Syracuse University bravely saves students from exposure to journalism

One of the many photos captured by Michel du Cille of The Washington Post while covering Ebola in Liberia.
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Michel du Cille, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist, was recently in Liberia to cover the Ebola outbreak. He is back in the United States now, and he was supposed to go to Syracuse University — home to a very prestigious journalism school — to talk about what it was like covering this public-health crisis, documenting and illuminating a horrific epidemic that has killed more than 4,000 people.

However, du Cille — a Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist, which I should really say three times, because he has won the award three times — was not able to speak to the students, because he was told not to come to the campus, because he was in a place where there is Ebola and that freaks some people out.

See, after du Cille returned from Liberia, he has been following the various self-monitoring guidelines recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That meant avoiding any potentially infectious contact with people, taking his temperature very often and watching for any symptoms during the 21-day period when it is generally accepted that Ebola symptoms, if they show up, are going to show up. He has been careful, and he has not exhibited any symptoms, which is important, because public-health officials say that people with Ebola are only contagious when they are exhibiting symptoms.

Du Cille was not happy, as he explained to News Photographer magazine:

I just got off the phone with the Dean [Lorraine Branham], and I am pissed off. I am disappointed in the level of journalism at Syracuse, and I am angry that they missed a great teaching opportunity. Instead they have decided to jump in with the mass hysteria.

The university’s decision was a little strange, when you consider that public-health experts have said over and over and over and over and over and over and over that it is not very easy to get Ebola. You need “direct contact,” they say.

The decision was somewhat weird when you consider that a day before he was scheduled to speak at Syracuse’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, he was in Atlanta and wandering around inside the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While he was there, he helped illustrate the situation currently faced by the CDC director Tom Frieden (taking some photos while right next to Frieden!) and also worked on a video feature about the emergency operations center fielding Ebola-related calls (watch a video he helped make right here!).

This seems a little strange, because if his 21 days of monitoring are good enough for the CDC, they are probably good enough for a college campus full of non-epidemiologists, right?

Well, in a column posted Friday afternoon, Lorraine Branham, dean of the Newhouse school, explained the choice thusly:

It was not a decision that we made lightly and we certainly understood that in doing so we opened ourselves to criticism about stoking fears among the public and spreading ignorance about the disease and how it is spread. This is not what you want to do as the dean of a premiere journalism school. But concern for our students, faculty and staff outweighs any concern I have about how this decision will be viewed by others.

As Branham explains, it had been exactly 21 days since duCille returned from Liberia, and while that would have been enough for her, “I knew that might not be good enough for many others in the community.” (It is always the “others,” isn’t it?) She consulted university officials, and the school also checked with some health officials and doctors.

Everyone agrees that there was probably a very small risk to our students. Still, our health experts suggested an “abundance of caution” and we decided to take that advice. I was unwilling to take ANY risk where our students are concerned.

She also says that “at least one student was already worried” about du Cille’s visit.

We here at Post Nation are not in the business of making judgments, nor are we in the business of saying that universities striving to teach journalism should probably not wilt in the face of the dangers that can be associated with practicing journalism. We are definitely not going to say that the school acquiesced to fear and panic rather than trusting in science and medicine. And we are certainly not going to say we feel sorry for the students shelling out thousands of dollars for an education in journalism at a school that is making it clear in action, if not word, that once they are out in the world, engaging in actual journalism (which can mean traveling to dangerous places and confronting deadly things), the lessons to be drawn from their work can be superseded by hysteria.

We will say, however, that on Monday, Washington Post journalists who covered Ebola in West Africa — du Cille included — will be meeting with other reporters to discuss their experiences covering the outbreak. We will be attending, and any Syracuse University student who is able to make it to Washington — or Branham, by the way! — are welcome to come as our guest, if they are interested in learning more about the crisis on the ground, rather than the crisis of hysteria.