Communicating to a nation under a state of emergency, one declared because of an outbreak of Ebola, is a serious matter, and a time when hard-pressed governments need the help of responsible journalists and serious news outlets to report the facts.
The international media has been exceptional in much of its its coverage and understanding of the situation we face. Accurate journalism is more important than ever when people even in remote villages have access through smartphones and low-cost laptops to news from the world’s media, when only a few years ago information was only delivered through a small number of local outlets.
Yet such access is still far from universal. In Liberia we are still to catch up; mobile penetration remains around 50 percent of the population, rather than nearing 100 percent as it is today in many parts of Africa. When an emergency strikes, government must still rely primarily on radio, print, and the goodwill of local journalists to disseminate life-saving information. Still, international media reports have a crucial role to play in informing local news outlets whose reporters based in our capital Monrovia do have access to the Internet.
This is why it is so disheartening when some refuse to report the facts, or worse, try to use a crisis to boost their profile rather than help their countrymen. That is what has happened when a local journalist, Wade Williams, decided to make a series of false claims in an article for the New York Times, “In the Grip of Ebola,” that through its blatant inaccuracy seems to serve no purpose save to advance her name recognition.
According to Williams: “Among the government’s first reactions was to limit journalists’ coverage of it [the Ebola outbreak]. That, in my view, is a major reason the virus has spread as fast as it has.”
Later in the piece she claims personal credit for making the public aware of Ebola when her first story in July this year when her newspaper “published my reporting and the images I took on our website and social media platforms. Those were, I believe, the first images of the Ebola outbreak to circulate in Liberia, and the impact was huge; at last, people began to believe that this disease was real.”
While everyone is entitled to express their opinion, in a crisis facts are critical, and these are not what Williams volunteered. Far from limiting journalists’ from covering the outbreak, the Government of Liberia urged them to do so. We first began broadcasting nationwide public information on Ebola in March, using radio and later television to reach as many citizens as possible. We also began to address this issue through government press conferences, one on March 27, a briefing Ms. Williams attended. She was present again at another on April 1 when a representative of the World Health Organization warned of the danger of ebola and how to halt its spread. Since they were held these press briefings have been available to view online.
Yet Williams did not report on the outbreak until June 30, and then asserted in her New York Times article that this was the story that “at last made people believe that the disease was real”, when the government and other media outlets had been doing this for months.
It would have been straightforward for the Times to check these facts. But they did not, either by accident or because they chose not to do so. This is more than unfortunate from the standpoint of such well-regarded international newspaper; it is bordering on unethical from the perspective of Wade Williams.
In a crisis such as this deadly Ebola outbreak, responsible journalism and the accurate dissemination of information is critical. All of us with accountability to the public — both in government and the media — need therefore to ensure accuracy in what we write and say, and ensure at all times irresponsible claims are not made that may cloud efforts to help inform and save lives.