Misinformation is hampering efforts to tackle the Ebola outbreak in west Africa as rumours and speculation exacerbate the epidemic. In such a climate, local media can help to save lives.
In recent weeks, fear and misunderstanding have claimed new kinds of victims, including the three journalists killed in Womme, Guinea, along with five health workers, after they were attacked by villagers so terrified of the disease that they feared any outsider could infect their village.
In Womme, a local policeman said villagers believe that Ebola is nothing more than an invention of white people, to kill black people.
On Monday, a Liberian official said misinformation is hampering efforts to tackle the outbreak there, citing rumours that an educational film shown to villagers is intended merely to distract people while officials literally poison the wells.
In such a climate, it is vital that governments and the international community understand that epidemics are exacerbated by misinformation, and that medical efforts to combat the disease must be accompanied by work to curb the spread of rumours and false news.
While “messaging campaigns” from governments and international aid workers are important, they are not enough. Unless trust has been established, getting the message “right” does not mean that it will be accepted.
Credible sources of information in the local language have the greatest impact: this is why word-of-mouth is so powerful, often dangerously so. But it is also why local media can be so effective.
Local journalists can expand the conversation beyond a one-way, top-down message from the authorities to people, and build dialogue – in addition to distributing useful information. A feeling of being heard, of having input, goes a long way towards building trust.
René Sakèlè, a journalist with Radio Rurale in N’Zérékoré, Guinea, and member of a team working with Internews to produce a humanitarian radio programme on Ebola in Guinea, said the experience had helped to expand the journalists’ view on who is qualified to talk about the disease.
“Today, I know that there are not only ‘official’ sources. There are also [health] experts, civil society, youth and women – who can all say something about Ebola,” Sakèlè said.
Mara, a resident of Moty N’Zérékoré, said she had heard the programme, which addressed widespread fears that going to the hospital – for any reason – was unsafe.
“I thought what people were saying was true. But the explanations of the chief doctor of the clinic allowed me to understand hospitals are not the source of the risk,” Mara said.
Messaging alone will not convince people who have heard and believed rumours from their friends and families. It is only through building multiple, trusted forms of communication that we can turn the tide against misinformation, and local media must be tasked and entrusted with responsibility to do this.
In order to be stewards of information, local journalists must have tools: the skills to understand and report on complex medical issues; the ability to seek out and rely on independent, qualified sources; the deftness to hear concerns and curate useful conversations; and the technique to make stories understandable and actionable to their audiences.
It is not an easy job. Like the medical workers who put themselves at risk to aid the sick, these journalists should be regarded as heroes, combating the viral spread of a killer: the rumours and misinformation that put everybody at risk.
Information can save lives. Through training, support and long-term mentoring, we have witnessed first-hand the ability of Kenyan journalists, for example, to turn a local understanding of HIV and Aids from a threat so terrifying that even families turned on and cast out those afflicted, to a public health issue that demands attention and response at the highest levels.
Skilled journalists led communities through the scourge of avian flu. It can be done, but there is no time to waste.
Journalists alone cannot turn the tide against Ebola, but they must be part of the solution. Reporters throughout west Africa will continue to put themselves at risk to cover this crisis and to help communities to combat it. If we want to stop Ebola, we must support them.
(This oped regarding communicating about Ebola from The Guardian was written by Jeanne Bourgault, Internews President & CEO, and Daniel Bruce, Internews Europe Chief Executive.)