Healthy Journalism

Friday, September 19, 2014

All Ebola, all the time

Liberian journalist Wade C. L. Williams interviewing in the field. 

That’s how HMJ’12 graduate Laura Smith described her health communications work at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on the day President Obama came to visit.

Carolyn Crist (HMJ’14) said the same, five weeks earlier, when physician Kent Brantly and health worker Nancy Writebol arrived at Emory University Hospital for what turned out to be life-saving care. Crist kept vigil in greater Atlanta and filed nearly every day for 

For Liberian journalist Wade C. L. Williams, life has been “all Ebola, all the time” since the first cases were identified in March. She is the newsroom chief for Front Page Africa and her coverage of women in West Africa had already won international awards before the Ebola catastrophe hit.

Williams comes to UGA next month, where she will give a talk at the UGA Chapel on Thursday, Oct. 23. The event begins at 4 p.m and all are welcome.

She’ll have a conversation with a select group of GradyCollege students the day before her public talk, as part of the McGill Symposium. This is Grady’s annual celebration of journalistic courage, and first-year HMJ student Christopher McGee is one of this year’s McGill Fellows.

Williams will also spend time with students and faculty associated with the Center for Tropical and Emerging Global Diseases. CTEGD, Grady College and UGA’s Office for Academic Programs all worked together to host her visit. We’re eager for her arrive and hoping that she and her family stay healthy and that Monrovia’s airport remains open.

Although Front Page Africa is still trying to dig into political scandals, economic turmoil and other big stories, Ebola coverage is stretching them thin. Williams is functioning as an editor and as a shoe leather reporter.

“I've been scared to death myself sometimes after those difficult assignments,” Williams wrote in a recent email. “I've covered burials, sick people abandoned, health facilities abandoned, I've gone into isolation centers, I've interviewed survivors. But I'm still here, well, not sick.” She’s highly conscious of CDC prevention guidelines and avoids contact with sick or dead people and their body fluids. Front Page Africa prominently displays prevention advice and tallies cases and deaths at the county level.
As an investigative reporter, Williams is not always loved by the people in power. In a New York Times op-ed piece, Williams lambastes Liberia’s government for  foot-dragging and for stifling media coverage that she says could have saved lives.

Meanwhile, the United States and other industrialized nations are finally taking Ebola seriously. As a result, the flow of people and supplies to West Africa is quickening.  

At the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, three recent HMJ graduates are on the Ebola team. Laura Smith’s work in the Joint Information Center of the Emergency Operations Center earned her an invitation to meet President Obama when he visited CDC on September 16 to announce additional aid.

All three are part of the health communications team that competes with misinformation that inevitably swirls around any high profile disease outbreak. They scramble to make sure that professionals and the public have timely and accurate information in a fast-moving world.

Lacey Avery, who graduated in 2013, works on Ebola response communications in the same room as Laura. She is part of a team working on messages about infection control and prevention in U.S. and West African healthcare settings. Marcie McClellan, a 2012 HMJ graduate, also develops content but also checks to see how messages are being received.

“I actually just back from Arizona where I spent a week facilitating trainings and focus groups, where I got feedback on our Ebola press releases,” Marcie said in a Sept. 13 email.

With disease forecasters saying that Ebola is going to get much worse before it gets better, the health journalism alums say their agency is in “all-hands-on-deck” mode for the foreseeable future. 

“This is definitely the most intense response I've been involved in,” said Laura. “It's all Ebola all the time and the information is constantly changing. My day job has been put on hold, as is the case with most people involved.”

Independent journalist Carolyn Crist also put her life on hold when an editor at offered her the chance to cover the evacuation of two Ebola-infected Americans to Atlanta.

She moved into her grandmother's house south of Atlanta and over the next week drove to press conferences and interviews with experts at Emory University, in Cartersville (where Phoenix Air is based), at Dobbins Air Base in Marietta and at Georgia State University and Georgia Tech.

Carolyn participated in three press conferences and in three embargoed phone calls about the latest Ebola vaccine studies, joining the calls with reporters from the New York Times, Nature, Washington Post, USA Today and other major outlets, an experience she describes as “thrilling.”

Six of her stories were published online by Wired; she’s now working toward a feature for the magazine. “Fingers crossed,” Carolyn says.

Ebola is a global health catastrophe, and its toll on families and communities is sad beyond measure. This is also a time when reporters and health communicators work to arm us all with information that helps us stay safe and remain connected with our fellow humans.