They were the first to sound the alarm.
Doctors Without Borders or MSF (Médecins Sans Frontières) urged the world to respond to the growing epidemic that was killing 90 percent of its victims.
The media made the problem worse and were irresponsible in their coverage by perpetuating fear rather than important context and information, said Dr. Deane Marchbein, president of MSF’s United States chapter at the Awards Luncheon for the Association of Health Care Journalists (AHCJ) 2015 conference.
Marchbein gave her speech following the 2014 AHCJ awards ceremony, where winners received awards for their excellence in healthcare journalism. She urged health care journalists to hold global response organizations accountable for what they promise to do. She also acknowledged the important role that media has in international crisis response.
“We ultimately depend on you, the media, to amplify important stories that we cannot,” Marchbein said. “It is you, the journalists, who inform, alert and help create space for aid to occur.”
Ebola exploded into the American consciousness in October, when Liberian-American Thomas Eric Duncan died of the disease and subsequently infected two nurses. Duncan had contracted the disease on a trip home to visit family in Liberia. His return to the U.S. and knowledge of his condition and death caused panic. Marchbein accused the media of spreading hysteria, distracting attention from the real tragedy in Africa while mulling ridiculous questions such as whether Ebola can be transmitted through bowling balls. She said the Ebola scare also drew attention away from more relevant health concerns in the United States, such as the outbreak of measles, a highly contagious disease that can be prevented by vaccinations.
Marchbein compared Ebola coverage to the media’s response to HIV/AIDS in the 80’s, when the disease was primarily associated with gay men and the stigma surrounding the disease was much higher.
She encouraged journalists to examine West Africa’s infrastructure issues, which prevented so many from getting access to healthcare, as well as on the performance of relief organizations.
“This is where you have a vital role to play,” she said. “By holding us all accountable.”
Journalists did just that during the question and answer session, when several reported that MSF had obstructed their media requests. Marchbein said she was disappointed to hear of the problems and promised that MSF will work on ways to improve its media relations.