Ebola: A case study

Bill Hall of the U.S. Dept of Health and Human Services explains risk communication. Photo by Rich Press
Bill Hall of the U.S. Dept of Health and Human Services explains risk communication. Photo by Rich Press
By Arvind Suresh

The recent Ebola epidemic in West Africa, and the virus’s spread to the U.S., sent the American news media into a state of collective frenzy and spawned thousands of news stories. As a science writer, it was hard not to notice that there was a tremendous amount of misinformation to be found at every corner. I was forced to ask myself, what is the best way to communicate in this environment?

This quandary was the subject of the “Ebola: Case Study” session at DCSWA’s 2015 Professional Development Day. The panelists, Bill Hall, news director at the U.S Department of Health and Human Services, Joel Achenbach, reporter at the Washington Post, and Virgie Townsend, senior editor of communications and media at the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials, had all been in the eye of the Ebola storm and gave us an opportunity to reflect and learn.

Speaking first, Hall laid out the basics of risk perception and communication based on research conducted in this field over the past few decades. Discussing the importance of addressing both real and perceived risks in an emergency, he explained how the government channeled people’s fear into positive actions by encouraging them to check official Twitter feeds and educate themselves with the myriad of CDC communications materials on Ebola, including videos, fact sheets and infographics. This helped reduce the spread of unfounded rumors and fears, he said. Hall also emphasized that any organization communicating risk in a crisis should acknowledge fear and express empathy. “People want to know that you care,” he said.

Achenbach provided the view from inside a newsroom, explaining what he saw as the responsibility of journalists during the crisis. Amidst the fear-mongering, “our challenge at the Post was to be a good filter of the news so that we would not feed the hysteria.” This was not easy, he said, because even as he and his colleagues relied heavily on experts like Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) director Thomas Frieden, the information available was limited. Achenbach also mentioned that there were a few scientists whose views on the chances of Ebola mutating were outside mainstream scientific opinion, and journalists had the tough task of deciding how much “time and ink to give the outlier view,” especially when these views were being given coverage by other news outlets.

Townsend described her experience handling the crisis, pointing out that “the [American] public felt betrayed” when health care workers in the U.S. contracted Ebola, and that this contributed to a large portion of the panic response. She also discussed how social media, as disruptive as they were in spreading rumors about Ebola, could also be valuable tools for risk communicators to monitor public sentiment and craft their messages accordingly.

One key lesson from all three panelists was that mixed messages almost always have negative impacts. Illustrating this point, they said, was the example of Frieden stating that the CDC would “stop Ebola in its tracks.” Shortly thereafter, two nurses contracted the disease, eroding the public’s faith in the ability of the health system to manage the crisis. Even though Frieden had explicitly stated that a few cases of Ebola were to be expected, that part of the message was lost in the surrounding cacophony.

The session ended with a lively Q&A session that provided further insights and summarized the lessons learned during the Ebola crisis.

See all PDD 2015 highlights