Ebola coverage too important to be a competition, editor tells journalists

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After reports of an El Paso hospital closing its emergency room over a possible Ebola case burned like wildfire through social media Friday, Bob Moore, editor of the El Paso Times, posted the following cautionary note on his Facebook account:

“Something important to remember about reports of the closure of the Del Sol ER and any possible connection with Ebola:

Image from Flickr user star5112, licensed under Creative Commons

Image from Flickr user star5112, licensed under Creative Commons

Hospitals across the country have been dealing with concerns about possible Ebola cases. They react with an abundance of caution, as is appropriate. But in every case except those tied to the case in Dallas, tests have all turned up negative.

We in the media should be informative but not alarmist.”

On Saturday the hospital released a statement saying its emergency room did not close. It explained that a patient’s symptoms and answers during a screening process triggered infectious disease protocols. The patient was isolated and the Texas Department of State Health Services and City of El Paso Department of Public Health determined the patient didn’t meet the criteria for Ebola testing.

Moore followed up with another Facebook post to prompt a discussion of guidelines traditional media, and now anyone on social media, can follow to strive for responsible reporting in times of quickly unfolding, high anxiety events.

Here is Moore’s post (reprinted with his permission):

Bob Moore

Moore

Here are some additional thoughts on last night’s events at Del Sol Medical Center. This is not meant as criticism of any individuals or media outlet. It’s meant to start conversation about how we can best do our job at a very stressful time. I’ve shared these thoughts with my colleagues at the Times and our New Mexico papers to help guide our coverage in this incredibly nervous time.

When reporting on a supposed Ebola case, three C’s should guide journalists: caution, context and confirmation.

Caution

The public is very much on edge, for understandable reasons. That unease is fanned by certain actors who want to frighten people for political or ratings reasons (not talking local folks here). So a lot of bad or questionable information is making it out there, particularly in social media. So it is the media’s first job – more than ever – to make sure we don’t wrongly fan those flames of anxiety. That’s where caution comes in.

Our first instinct must NOT be to post or go on the air with possibly incomplete or questionable information. Take a deep breath. Talk about the decision in our newsrooms. Ask what we’re missing, what more information can be gathered.

I believe the decision to go with a story about a possible local Ebola case must be made by the top news executive at a media outlet.

Context

Ebola is a story with a lot of complicated science. Experts don’t agree on everything about the disease. But there are some readily known facts that should guide our coverage of reports of a possible local Ebola case, and that should be shared with readers and viewers if we go with such stories.

The most important is that as of now, there have been two confirmed cases of Ebola transmission in the United States, both nurses who treated the Liberian man in Dallas.

There’s a lot of monitoring going on for people who had contact with any of those three people, called contact tracing. Unfortunately, mistakes made in late September and in subsequent days have widened the pool of people being monitored. But so far, we have the two nurse cases.

In the meantime, people with fevers and vomiting are showing up at hospitals every day, just like they always do. Many of them will doubtless have worries about Ebola, and some may legitimately fear they have some risk of exposure, like being at the Dallas airport at the same time as the nurse who was allowed to fly to Cleveland. But in a multitude of such cases across the country, including in El Paso last night, it’s not Ebola.

Given this context, we can deduce not only that people presenting with symptoms in El Paso aren’t likely to have Ebola, but it’s almost certain at this point that they don’t. That may change in the future, but that’s an accurate description right now.

The AP has stopped reporting on such cases because they’re so plentiful, and risk raising needless alarm. I’m not saying local media covering stories on local people shouldn’t report such cases, but we should do so only after applying an abundance of caution and providing our audiences with as much context as we can. And that leads me to my third C.

Confirmation

Journalists have long been told to report something only after confirmation from multiple sources.

Too often, we fall short of that common-sense guidance. We cannot make that mistake on a story like this. The stakes are too high.

I’m told the basic thrust of last night’s story – that the Del Sol ER was closed because of a possible Ebola case – was provided by the Fire Department, but I haven’t heard a name attached to that.

Del Sol officials say the ER was never closed. A Times reporter spent some time in the ER last night (before being asked to leave) and was told by several people that they had been there throughout the night.

It’s possible some semantics are at play here. Conflicting information like this is not unusual in breaking news stories. But that’s why confirmation is even more important.

There’s a competitive rush to be first. That’s how bad information gets out. Let’s suspend the competitive instincts on these stories. This is a classic case where being right matters a lot more than being first.

Of course, public affairs officials at hospitals and key government agencies play a very important role. They must be prepared to provide accurate information quickly, even at odd hours.

I hope others will add thoughts on how the media can be of most use at this time. This is not a complete list by any means. I look forward to feedback.

Bob Moore is editor of the El Paso Times and vice president of news for the Texas-New Mexico Newspapers Partnership for Digital First Media. His wife, Kate Gannon, is digital content manager for Borderzine.

 

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