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Priscilla Wald on Media Treatment of Ebola

Expert on epidemic coverage stresses need to address poverty


English and Women’s Studies professor Priscilla Wald can almost track the progression of Ebola with a scan of her inbox. The requests for interviews haven’t tapered off much since early October, when Duke’s Office of News & Communications sent out a news tip coinciding with confirmation of the first case of the virus diagnosed in the United States.

Wald, the author of “Contagious: Cultures, Carriers, the Outbreak Narrative,” has extensively examined the intersection of myth and medicine as they relate to contagions. She says she has carved out time to talk with reporters because she cares about the missing element of much of the news coverage.

Priscilla Wald

In recent appearances on NPR, in The Washington Post and the Star-Telegram in Dallas-Forth Worth, she has emphasized the need to fight the disease by addressing poverty and access to health care. Last summer, in an appearance on CCTV America, she said “it would help alleviate the spread of disease if there was more access to health care in Africa."

“I was already speaking to people back in July when the World Health Organization declared it a problem, but when it hit the United States there was much more interest,” she says. “Everyone I’ve talked with has asked thoughtful questions.”

Wald has personally tracked all kinds of epidemic coverage since the mid-'90s and studied the record of coverage much farther back than that. She says there is a “real mix” in the reporting this time. While some outlets have cautioned against panic, she has also seen coverage that tilts toward the sensational, with some paranoia thrown in.

“There’s a range in both social media and mainstream media,” she says.

Wald says Ebola has captured our collective fear because it, like epidemic movies, relies on a fictional burst of imagination.

In response to this latest incident, the outbreak narrative has had some unusual consequences, Wald says. “When we think about the slow response of the WHO, the flip side of panic was not calm, but complacency,” she says. “The outbreak narrative has accustomed us to expect not only sensation, but resolution: the outbreaks are contained before the predicted ‘apocalypse.’ Considering past Ebola outbreaks, the WHO expected that containment, but this time it didn't happen as quickly as it has in the past.”

She is encouraged that some media outlets are beginning to tell the story about the relationship of the virus, first discovered in 1976, to global poverty and foreign aid. She is heartened to see more journalists writing about the bigger geopolitical issues and countering defeatism.

“I think in the 21st century the coverage is becoming increasingly responsible,” she says. Still, she acknowledges the possibility that pundits will veer further into hysteria and paranoia and use the situation to push political agendas.

Wald checks Google News, buys newspapers, subscribes to online sources and keeps an ear to the radio and TV to map the coverage and see how it fits or diverges from the “outbreak narrative.”

“I hope the language of crisis doesn’t obscure a more thoughtful and compassionate analysis of the problem,” she says. “The problem of poverty is something we all have a responsibility to address.”

Wald is an experienced hand at media work, having been a source during earlier outbreaks of SARS and H1N1. During one Modern Language Association workshop on media outreach, she was asked what skills one might build on when facing the media. ”I told them that it's a lot like teaching undergraduates, smart people.”

She says she was impressed when she was asked by a journalist with The Washington Post to describe how she would write a story that addressed the fear element. Wald advised not just telling people “to not be afraid” but to examine the roots of that fear, how the outbreak narrative triggers their emotions.

At the end of last week, she appeared on WUNC Radio’s “The States of Things” with another Washington Post reporter, media writer Paul Farhi.