Finding reliable sources
If you’re new to reporting on emerging diseases, it can be hard to find reliable sources. Outbreaks and epidemics are often complicated, chaotic events, where situations constantly change, experts contradict one another, and good information is hard to come by. That has certainly been the case with the Ebola epidemic in West Africa.
Still, there are many ways to inform yourself. Below is a partial list of important places to go when you’re covering Ebola, along with some tips on how to use them. Although geared towards Ebola, this list should be useful for many other infectious diseases you might be reporting on.
Perhaps the most important advice: Don’t just rely on one or a few sources. Be inquisitive, keep an open eye, and cast a wide net.
The World Health Organization
The World Health Organization (WHO) has a pivotal role in the fight against Ebola. It supports national governments, provides technical information, coordinates the work of other parties, sends missions to the field, and is the central gathering place for epidemiological information. Following WHO is crucial if you want to keep track of what’s happening with Ebola; you should sign up for WHO’s press releases and follow @WHO on Twitter.
WHO’s Ebola homepage has a wealth of background information about Ebola and the battle to end it, from basic information about the disease and daily situation reports—called ‘Sitreps’ in WHO jargon—to stories about how the current epidemic evolved.
WHO also has a small army of press officers to communicate with the media, both at the headquarters in Geneva and their six regional offices around the world. (The regional office for Africa, often called WHO-AFRO, is located in Brazzaville, Republic of Congo.) Use these media contacts when you have a question and you can’t find the answers on WHO’s website. They don’t always respond immediately, and sometimes not at all; nag them when you don’t get a reply. Asking a question on Twitter may help you get an answer more quickly.
Governments and government agencies
Governments—whether they’re local, regional or national—are obviously important sources of information during any disease outbreak, and you should keep an eye on them. But how well-informed and transparent they are varies greatly. The current Ebola epidemic has struck some of the poorest countries in the world, with weak and cash-strapped governments; the information they have provided about the epidemic has been limited. Still, the ministries of health in Sierra Leone and Liberia have posted basic information about the epidemic on their website, including regular updates on the numbers of cases and deaths. (The ministry of health and sanitation in Guinea does not appear to have a website at the moment.)
One reason to be wary is that there have been many examples where governments downplayed the significance of an emerging disease or fudged the numbers to reassure its population or to protect travel and trade. In 1990, for instance, British agriculture minister John Grummer fed his 4-year old daughter a hamburger in front of TV cameras to show that it was safe to eat beef during the outbreak of mad cow disease, or BSE. (It wasn’t; BSE was later shown to cause a fatal human brain disease.) During the SARS epidemic in 2003-04, China initially denied it had a major problem, which allowed its outbreak to almost spiral out of control.
So when reporting on outbreaks, it’s good practice to follow government information with a healthy dose of skepticism, and to ask independent experts about how well the government is handling the situation and whether it’s honestly investigating and reporting cases.
Getting access to government scientists can be a problem too–and even more so when the topic is politically sensitive, as outbreaks often are. This problem by no means is limited to the developing world; Canada, for instance, tightly controls press access to government scientists. Often, researchers at non-government institutions, such as universities, are better sources.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (an agency within the U.S. government) has a very extensive Website about Ebola. So does the National Institutes of Health, which has invested heavily in Ebola vaccines.
One good piece of advice—and not just when you’re covering Ebola—is “follow the money.” If a government is spending tons of money on a problem, you can find experts there who know a lot about it.
ProMED, a project run by the International Society for Infectious Diseases, has a very useful email-list and website that collects and republishes reports about emerging infectious diseases around the world. If you sign up for their alerts, you will get their emails every week, daily, or even multiple times per day. You specify the frequency. (On a given day, there may be news about drug-resistant tuberculosis in Europe, bird flu in Asia, the cucumber green mottle mosaic virus in Australia, and botulism in the United States.) ProMED had hundreds of posts about Ebola the past year.
Scanning these emails is a great way to keep up with what’s going on with many pathogens. You can also subscribe to specialized lists for the former Soviet Union, Francophone and Anglophone Africa, Latin America, and so on.
The reports on ProMED come from governments, newspapers, scientific papers, and other sources; basically, ProMED will run anything that is new, interesting and at least somewhat credible.
Often, the reports are accompanied by a useful bit of comment from one of ProMED’s moderators that helps put the news into context or brings up new questions. They will also debunk false information and ask readers to fill in knowledge gaps. ProMED is read by public health officials and scientists, who will sometimes do their earliest public reporting on an outbreak via ProMED. The very first reports about SARS and MERS, for instance, appeared here.
All of the messages on ProMED are stored in a searchable archive on its website, a very handy resource if you want to know, say, what the dengue virus has been up to lately, or where cases of mad cow disease have happened the past five years.
Twitter has become an invaluable reporting tool for many journalists. Among other things, it lets you:
- Follow important sources of information on Ebola, such as WHO, national governments, and Médecins sans Frontières (MSF);
- Follow how other media are covering the epidemic (almost every important story now breaks on Twitter);
- Pick up on policy and science debates;
- Hear about stories, rumors, and problems that haven’t been aired in the press yet;
- Ask questions of experts, politicians and scientists;
- Chat to other journalists.
Of course, Twitter is not only a source and a reporting tool, but also a way to post breaking news and pictures yourself, alert readers to your own stories and direct traffic to your site, offer opinions, if you’re so inclined, and connect with your audience.
While Twitter is incredibly useful, it can also be the source of false information, either because people mistakenly tweet something wrong or because they deliberately do so. And people sometimes retweet old tweets, which can seem something that happened weeks ago seem like a new event. Be a discerning Twitter consumer. Don’t assume everything you read is completely accurate. Follow good sources. (Fore more, see the chapter ‘Tips and Traps.‘)
Many organizations and governmental agencies organize press conferences. For those working internationally, they are more and more often teleconferences, where reporters joining on the phone outnumber those physically in the room. Sign up for the press releases from these organizations and use the press conferences; they are often an easy way to get a lot of information in a short time. Even if you get only one question in, or none at all, you can benefit and learn from other reporters’ questions.
For WHO press conferences, you can now use a local number to dial in from many countries at low rates; sometimes these numbers are toll-free so you don’t pay anything at all. Sadly, this service is currently available from only a few countries in Africa. But WHO also posts audio recordings from press conferences on its website shortly after they happen and a full transcript a little later—also very helpful if you missed something or want to be sure you got that quote right. Here are the transcripts and audio files for WHO’s teleconferences about Ebola.
Scientists are an important source of information when you’re covering an infectious disease outbreak; they are often best positioned to answer difficult questions about the pathogen, the epidemiology, drugs and vaccines, et cetera. And many scientists are easy to find and happy to talk to the press.
Even if you’re working in an African country where fewer experts are available, there is nothing stopping you from emailing some questions to, say, a researcher in Europe or the United States. Many universities will list the email addresses of their staff on their websites. A Google search with the scientist’s name and the @ symbol or the domain of his or her university’s email system, such as @harvard.edu, will sometimes pull up an email address.
Yet scientists aren’t experts on everything, and it’s good to be aware of who you’re talking to; some people present themselves as experts but they are not. Do they have an appointment as a researcher, and if so, where? Have they published in the scientific literature recently, and about what? What is their specialty?
Some people may have a broad overview of the field infectious diseases, which may be fine for certain questions you have, but may not have the answers on specific questions about Ebola vaccines. Another person may have studied Ebola vaccines and know exactly what they do in monkeys, but may have no idea about what it takes to produce and ship millions of doses of a vaccine, or about how much a vaccine will cost and who should pay. Again, cast a wide net. Try to talk to many people and read a lot.
Also, keep in mind that scientists often don’t agree. For example, there has been a big debate about the question whether the Ebola virus might start spreading through the air, which would make it much more dangerous. (Most scientists believe the virus spreads only via the bodily fluids of infected or deceased people.)
This discussion started with an op-ed piece in The New York Times by Michael Osterholm, the director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, who argued that Ebola might mutate to become transmissible through coughing or sneezing, just like the flu virus. If that happened, it could trigger a worldwide epidemic, or pandemic, that would be very hard to stop.
Many scientists said that viruses don’t just change the way they are transmitted, and some accused Osterholm of creating unnecessary panic. But in a paper published in February in the journal mBIO, 20 other scientists, including several who work or have worked in the Ebola field themselves, appeared to offer some support to Osterholm’s ideas. They wrote that it’s “very likely” that limited airborne transmission of Ebola already occurs, and hypothesized that this might become a more important route of transmission. Again, other scientists were not impressed.
The bottom line is that there are many things we just don’t know for sure, and that scientists often disagree; that’s why you shouldn’t rely on a single researcher for your information. It can be very interesting to simply present both sides of the debate, as blogger Carl Zimmer did in this piece.
Patients and their families
People who have Ebola, or have recovered from it, can be an excellent source of first-hand information, along with their family members, caregivers, and friends. They can help illustrate important facts about the epidemic, such as how the virus spreads, which groups it primarily affects, and how well Ebola patients are being taken care of. This story in The New York Times, for instance, did a great job of showing the impact of Ebola on a large family in Liberia. (Here, the journalist, Norimitsu Onishi, describes how he found and reported the story.)
When talking to patients, always ask explicit permission to use their names or their pictures. Also, be aware that patients may be misinformed or may have incorrect beliefs about their disease. For instance, when someone believes that they contracted Ebola after consuming a certain unhealthy kind of food, or because of witchcraft, you can report that in your story—but don’t present it as a fact; instead, explain how Ebola is actually spread.
In the case of Ebola, many health care workers have become patients themselves. They are especially interesting sources because they are more knowledgeable than most patients, and they have seen the situation from two sides. Here, for instance, are interviews with two health care workers who survived Ebola, Senga Omeonga and Nancy Writebol.
Whenever you talk to patients, or people who may be infected, make absolutely sure you’re protecting yourself against infection with Ebola. For more on this, see ‘Staying Safe’.
The scientific literature
If you’re getting more serious about covering the ins and outs of Ebola—or any other infectious disease—you’ll want to follow what is published in the scientific literature and occasionally look up a research paper that’s already published. If you’re new to covering science, this can be very daunting. Here are a couple of tips to get you started.
- Many of the important research papers are published by a small group of journals, such as the New England Journal of Medicine, The Lancet, Nature, Science, and others. If you’re a journalist, you can sign up to get emails from these journals, allowing you to get a copy of the papers in advance, along with a press release that explains the news and, sometimes, illustrations. In return, you have to promise not to break the embargo.
This way, you will not only be notified of possible breakthroughs, but you also have time to ask other experts for their opinion on the new paper and prepare a story before the embargo is lifted. Each journal has a slightly different system for signing up; check their websites for more information.
Some journals (including The Lancet, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Science, and the BMJ) post their advance information on a joint website called Eurekalert. Here is how you can sign up for that.
Most of the top journals have paywalls, which means that only subscribers or people who pay for access can see their articles once they are published. But most of the major journals, including The New England Journal of Medicine and Science, are putting all the articles they publish on Ebola in front of their paywalls, so that anyone can read them.
- You can search for already published papers in biology and medicine using PubMed, a database maintained by the United States National Library of Medicine. Type any topic into the search box (such as “Ebola vaccines” or “Tuberculosis drug resistance“) and you will finds hundreds of scientific papers on that issue. PubMed provides summaries of those papers and in most cases a link to the scientific journal that published it – and it will note if the copy is available for free. At some journals, you can then download the full paper. If you can’t, you can write the journal for a copy, or ask one of the researchers (their email addresses are usually in the summary available on PubMed); often they’ll be happy to send you a PDF. Another way to get a PDF of a scientific paper is to ask for it on Twitter using the #icanhazpdf hashtag.
- One good way to get a quick overview of a topic is to look for a review paper, which presents an overview of the state of the science in an area. Often by adding “review” to your search, you can find a paper published within the past few years that will give you a lot of background. (Here is a review paper about Ebola drugs, for instance.)
- Reading scientific and medical papers can be hard. They can discuss complicated topics and be full of jargon and data that are difficult to understand or interpret. Don’t let this scare you off; you don’t need to understand every detail in a paper to make sense of it. Sections on methodology are often obtuse, but it’s usually not necessary to know all the details. The abstract will give you a paper’s main conclusions, and almost every paper ends with a discussion that explains the findings and puts them into context. Some journals also include a concise boxed section on every paper that explains what was known about the topic before and what the new paper adds to that knowledge.
You can also ask the authors of a paper to help them explain it to you. Usually, the first author is the person who did most of the practical work, while the last one is a senior scientist in charge of the study; it’s fine to contact both. Most papers indicate who you should contact and offer an e-mail address.
Another way to help you interpret the results in a paper is to email it to scientists who were not involved in the work, and ask them for their comment. This often results in very useful insights in the significance of a study and its limitations; you can report these comments in your story to produce a more balanced view. (Sometimes commenters will poke so many holes in a scientific paper that you may decide not to report it at all.)
Cultivate your sources
Once you have found people who are helpful and trustworthy, cultivate those contacts, so that you can call or email them again. Also, let them know that they can always contact you, and make sure your contact info is easy to find or is in every email you send. Sometimes, sources will initiate contact themselves.
Finally, it’s often good to ask at the end of an interview: “Who else should I talk to?” Of course people will usually recommend people who they like or who agree with them, and you don’t want to rely solely on these referrals. Very often, however, an extra interview will give you a valuable new perspective.