By Eric Chinje*
My colleagues at the African Media Initiative and I have been debating the effectiveness of reports on the Ebola pandemic. Has media played the role it should in helping society combat the disease? We reached an easy consensus: coverage of the pandemic has brought to the fore some of the fundamental challenges facing media in Africa and, possibly, around the world.
News editors everywhere never fail to remind their young reporters: good journalism is about seeking answers to all the right questions; looking at all sides of the story. Ebola is one of the big stories of our times and it is certainly appropriate to question how effectively African and global media have told this important story. Have reporters and editors asked the right questions?
The question of the unseen millions! Reports on the Ebola pandemic are replete with images of death and the violence of the disease, giving media consumers a real life equivalent of a Hollywood horror movie of alien invaders. What about the living millions who stand at the front-lines of that battle? How are they surviving this viral onslaught? Are children going to school and do they head for the playground when the bell rings? Are farmers in the farm, and is produce available in market stalls? Are taxicabs still a regular presence on street corners in Freetown, and do people take them in the same way they always did? What is really going on behind the veiled headlines of global coverage of Ebola?
Social etiquette in the Ebola affected countries, as in most parts of Africa and beyond, recognize hugging, handshakes, hi-fives, physical contact of sorts, as the simplest forms of expression of affection and friendship. Should coping mechanisms be part of the story? Do mothers in Liberia still kiss their babies good night at bedtime? Has the ritual of co-workers greeting one another in the morning been reduced to a head nod? How do the police effect arrests and prison wardens contain their prisoners, especially the recently-arrived ones? Do we, the audience of the unfolding crisis, have a right to see beyond the frightening body count?
“Ebola is emblematic of much larger problems of governance, leadership and trust,” according to Johannesburg-based social commentator, Sisonke Msimang. The crisis, she posits, has emerged from the nexus of these overlapping problems. We are reminded of the street claims in Monrovia at the start of the crisis that Ebola was an invention by the government to obtain more assistance for a donor-dependent nation. Was there a need to delve into the trust factor and see this crisis through the prism of trust between government and the governed? How much of the rapid spread of the disease was a factor of the quality of that social contract? Should this too have informed media-shaped global perceptions of the crisis?
The failure of governance has been occasionally mentioned, if only to make sense of the total systems breakdown in the affected countries. Local responsibility for this has been well documented. But should anyone have asked what all the aid agencies – omnipresent in Liberia – have been up to all these years? Where have all the hundreds of millions in assistance and health-related investment gone? Would the evidence of a seed planted not be there even if the seed withered and died? Is the Ebola story another sad reminder of all that is wrong with foreign aid as we know it? Should this too not inform the storyline?
It is notable that the crisis persists in three countries that were essentially destroyed by war and internal strife. The same cross-border movements that took Ebola from Guinea to Sierra Leone and Liberia are prevalent along borders with Ghana, Mali and Senegal. If war is the single factor of vulnerability, is there something to be said about the proliferation of arms and the role of the global military industrial complex in these outcomes? Should the global discourse on Ebola not take into account the havoc on fragile societies brought about by the unregulated international market for guns and bombs?
Questions, and more questions! The pharmaceutical industry has generally been spectacular in its efforts to contain the disease and continue to offer the world that occasional ray of hope that even this dreaded monster can eventually be tamed. But Africans everywhere took note of the timing of the announcement of progress in the search for anti-ebola therapies. That came when the first American citizen was infected and flown home for treatment. The result was a rash of conspiracy theories about experiments in biological weaponry gone bad. The theories quickly fizzled off due to lack of interest in the dominant media and, possibly, the underlying improbability of the assertions that were made. But the important angle about the industry and how it operates deserved, at the very least, deeper analysis. Did the global media go to sleep on this one or was it considered not important to the overall story?
Questions too should be asked about the innumerable institutes of tropical medicine that litter the African research landscape. Muted voices on the continent have suggested that solutions to the disease are available in the surroundings from whence it came. Are African researchers so glued to the norms they learned in school that they are totally unable to think out of the box and look within their immediate vicinity for some answers? What is going on behind those institutional walls? Is the silence media-induced or simply a reflection of inactivity in their labs?
Media has not been complicit in some macabre plot to return Africa to the disease narrative. Certainly not media in Africa. If anything, media professionals on the continent have, in their cut-and-paste approach to coverage, demonstrated a debilitating ignorance of the issues and of their role in assisting society deal with the impact of the disease. They have not asked the right questions. Yet, as every Editor knows, until the real questions are asked, the real story will never be told. African Media Initiative will be engaging heads of African media associations and organizations, as well as leading media owners, senior editors, and representatives from regional institutions on the continent, in a discussion on the media’s coverage of Ebola and other infectious disease outbreaks on the continent. The upcoming Consultative Forum on Media strategies, to be held in Nairobi, on November 14th will seek to address the many challenges that continue to plague media and make it an insignificant player in Africa’s development agenda.