Journalists became humanitarians during the 2014 Ebola outbreak, researcher says

This is one of a series of articles and videos on the June 2017 conference “Is no local news bad news? Local journalism and its future” hosted by the Ryerson Journalism Research Centre. Watch the full conference panel below. To read more about the conference and local news, visit:

Staff reporter

During the Ebola epidemic that spread across West Africa, local journalists were forced to redefine their roles, from reporters to humanitarian workers, say researchers who are still investigating the media crisis that overlapped with the 2014 health disaster.

Some days, the journalists tasked with reporting on Ebola weren’t even coming back to their editors with stories, says David Secko, science communications researcher and chair of Concordia’s journalism program. Instead, they were busy helping to deal with the outbreak and educate people on the ground.

“They also had to be community members, take hygiene kits, and show people how to wash their hands instead of writing a story about how to wash your hands,” he said.

“So we start to see them almost taking on the lead role of what the Red Cross and [Doctors without Borders] would have done in helping. And that [role] switches as the crisis gets worse and worse.”

In collaboration with the World Federation of Science Journalists, Secko and his team conducted over 30 in-depth interviews with local journalists to understand what went wrong while reporting during that year. Some challenges the journalists said they faced had to do with a lack of proper communication from the health organizations and a lack of experience reporting on a health crisis.

Some journalists interviewed in the course of his study said that they even helped dealing with corpses and burials. Some of them said that they became “protectors” of their communities.

Secko presented his work during a panel on new research methods at Is no local news bad news? Local journalism and its future, a conference hosted by the Ryerson School of Journalism June 4.  While his fellow panelists spoke about advancing analytic tools and understanding data, the former microbiologist focused on the power of learning through lived experience. By interviewing journalists, he aims to find solutions to problems they faced.

“You have to think also about the uniqueness of what they were dealing with,” he said. “Talking about Ebola is very different than anything else they had seen. Very different than anything they had come across before. That unfamiliarity and the unwillingness of government to share information with them.”

But, Secko says that each person he interviewed, at some point, talks about a “flip” in the role they played during the outbreak.

“The health authorities themselves did not really digest the information. The first information brought great fear. So at the start for those who remember, what the health authorities were releasing was basically just Ebola can kill,” he said.”Not all of this is set up for more than 30 dialects that the non-local messaging doesn’t care about.”

“We have journalists start to say things like ‘we fulfill our duty to communities at any cost.’”

The viral disease kills anywhere from 50 to 90 per cent of people who contract it, with symptoms similar to Malaria, influenza and other potentially life-threatening diseases. The outbreak was believed to have started in December 2014, but it wasn’t until March 2015 that it began to gain media attention—something WHO received heavy criticism for.

The Ebola outbreak killed over 11,000 people, many of which critics of West African governments and WHO say could have been prevented.

Secko said that this type of research is important to teach us how to change both documented and undocumented decisions that had taken place, such as the physical work journalists ended up doing during the outbreak.

“Why are we always talking about the same ideas? Even though the challenges and the contact might change and health and science journalist it’s particularly true,” he said.

“I’m often interested in ‘what haven’t we heard yet?’ Or ‘what don’t we know yet that might impact these things?’”

Secko says he is hopeful that his work will have practical uses in the field and that his findings could be applied to other outbreaks in the future.