The first time I walked for six hours to cover a news story was in August 2015 when Ebola had struck another part of my country. This time, eleven persons had died of the virus in a very remote village in Rivercess County – Eastern Liberia.
Covering this scoop was quite challenging: the bike ride, a mechanical breakdown, and then the long frightening nightly walk through the forest to a town cut-off from civilization, and then finally the trek back to base the next day.I was inspired to tell the story about the lone survivor, who lost almost all of his relatives to the deadly virus, my sources told me. And it became confirmed once I got there. There were concerns about two suspected patients but locals’ desperation for food, drugs and other relief items also needed to be told.
That trip was the highlight of my over-one-year experience of covering the outbreak in Liberia as a print and broadcast journalist. Even before my Rivercess County’s trip, everything about my journalism was all about ‘EBOLA’. The news bulletin, the talk shows, magazines shows, phone-in shows; Ebola had monopolized my entire journalism – and I couldn’t dare divert to something else -, in fact all my online and newspaper articles for FrontPage Africa Newspaper were coated with ‘Ebola’.
As a journalist based outside Liberia’s main capital – Monrovia, I wrote about Ebola, talked about Ebola, argued about Ebola and even taught people about Ebola – though I myself was short in knowledge about this rare and thorny virus that became so notoriously well known by the seconds in my country.
Reporting Ebola was a new phenomenon to Journalists in my country. No research outcomes, no exact information, and the uncertainties about the virus were overwhelming. Info on the internet was limited; the government was in the dark as well. Ignorance about the risk of covering Ebola stories was hazardous but we all dared. As Program and News Director for my station, I was often choked with drawing a line between the facts and rumours about Ebola. The uncertainties at time were complex and we had to be matriculate about the selection of news and programs contents to avoid exacerbating misconceptions. Maybe I was at times unethical when I ignored critical views; my argument remains ‘I never wanted the core messages distorted’.
Liberian journalists were very innovative. Our ingenuity was cutting edge and how we improvise remains a sacrifice. Being a Liberian journalist at the time equalled ingenuity and courageousness. Like me, others were curious about investigating the misconceptions about the virus, even at their detriment.
It took months to understand the trickery of this deadly killer, and the oddity about its dreadful consequences and how it could alter the socio-cultural traits of tradition and religion. From the onset, information from the government was scarce. The inefficiency of government’s risk communication strategy made it difficult to report accurately but when the US Center for Disease Control (CDC) provided daily update on its website, it became a credible source for me.
Finding multiple sources is also essential for good reporting but during this time a journalists had to very, very mindful. I had to change. Change from being critical about government’s health policies to being cooperative, obligated, and committed to adequately informing my audience and readers about the threat to our existence as a state. Explanation can’t tell the exact account of these memories left behind by Ebola.
Covering different aspects of the crisis and reporting from various angles did not distract me from upholding the ‘Social Responsibility Theory’ – one of the four classical theories of the media. I must note here that my knowledge of the Ebola virus heightened when international media group like Internews begun conducting training workshops for journalists covering the Ebola crisis.
Frankly, it was difficult to tell the story in full no matter where you were as a journalist – rural or urban. Existing capacity challenges like lack of transportation, resource materials and non- corporation from either government sources or NGOs posed difficulties to reporting expediently to an audience eager to know especially as the conspiracy theory about Ebola penetrated the media. The problem was unending but like others, I had to coupe in other to keep the coded message about Ebola afloat.
The coded message was the same all around the country: EBOLA IS REAL, EARLY TREATMENT GIVES YOU A CHANCE TO SURVIVE, EBOLA MUST GO! AND LATER, REDUCTING STIGAMA AGAINST SURVIVORS.” Nevertheless, challenges were still enormous, especially for journalists like me who was constrained to inform, educate and argue about the facts and fiction about Ebola.
Meanwhile, my coverage of the outbreak in Rivercess County attracted intervention; Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) and World Food Program (WFP) were quick to intervene. My experience about reporting Ebola is pretty much dynamic considering the multiple roles I played. One thing for sure is that I and all my journalist colleagues who covered the crisis have learned a lot about the virus and its aftermath. But the challenge was quite massive and left an indelible memory of how risky it can be when you are unfamiliar with an invisible enemy.
Article by: Alpha Daffae Senkpeni, Liberian Journalist
Profile: Alpha Daffae Senkpeni is a Liberian print, broadcast and online journalist with over ten years of experience. He works as News and Program Director for LACSA Radio in Grand Bassa County and also writes for Liberia’s leading newspaper and online news, FrontPage Africa. Senkpeni is a senior student at the University of Liberia – where he’s studying Mass Communication. He is passionate about health, humanitarian and development reporting.
Alpha Daffae Senkpeni was a participant in the five day workshop on improving science-based communication and local journalism in emergency & post Infectious diseases outbreak periods in Monrovia, Liberia organized by the World Federation of Science Journalists (WFSJ) and supported by Canada’s International Development Research Center (IDRC).