By Luisa Ryan
Below is the front page of a Liberian newspaper from March this year, at the beginning of the current Ebola crisis.
Clearly, the image of the “Ebola victim” is inaccurate, looking more like a screen grab from a horror movie than photojournalism. It evokes fear, it does not inform.
As the Ebola virus has spread across several African countries, the importance of accurate information has been increasingly highlighted.
Aid workers have stressed the importance of getting credible information to people in infected areas on the need to – at least for the time being – change some cultural practices. Funeral traditions, for example, need to change from cleaning and touching the dead, as corpses can still spread the disease. Eating bush meat and other daily practices are also being warned against.
Medical professionals know how the disease spreads, but getting this information to communities has proved problematic. Fighting rumors is problematic. Building trust in communities that have legitimate reason to mistrust outsiders or government agencies is problematic. Many Liberians, it has been reported, didn’t believe Ebola existed until months into the outbreak. They thought instead that it might be a government scheme to profit from donor money being spent on health initiatives in other countries.
This highlights the need not only for accurate information in times of crisis, but also the importance of a tradition of accurate information in times of peace. If the public doesn’t trust the media, or government information, during calm times, it has no reason to trust it when accurate information matters most.
Media development can help build credible media institutions that not only help people to make informed decisions in their everyday lives, but also when information may be lifesaving.