Reporting on Ebola in Liberia During the Outbreak. Interview With Liberian Journalist Alpha Senkpeni.

In November 2016, Liberian journalist, Alpha Daffae Senkpeni, was invited by the WFSJ to take part in a panel on crisis and risk communication at the Canadian Science Policy Conference (CSPC2016) in Ottawa, Canada.

Mr. Senkpeni, a reporter for and Front Page Africa, explained in a short interview that he decided to specialize in health reporting during the Ebola crisis when he realized that health reporting can help save lives.

Véronique Morin, a science journalist from Montreal, interviewed Mr. Senkpeni just before returning to Liberian.

Q: What is the main message you want to share with us?

SENKPENI: During the Ebola outbreak, journalists played a key role in helping curb the outbreak. But we were able to do that only by overcoming our own challenges and limitations. So, I came here to provide and overview of my experience to the participants of the Canada Science policy conference and to tell them that public health reporting can play a vital role in times of public health crisis. I provided my understanding of how things happened, stressing the importance of risk communication, transparency, and proper training for local journalists. It was such a learning curve for all of us, we can almost write our own book – from covering the Ebola crisis- as far as risk perception is concerned.

Q: So you decided to specialize in health reporting during the crisis. Tell us how this happened.

SENKPENI: During the Ebola crisis, I realized how inadequate the information was, that there was a lot of misconception and confusion about the crisis, which led to more victims. In other words, some people died because they were being misinformed. I drew the conclusion that information can save lives just like doctors and pharmaceutical can save lives. So, I believe that being a health journalist can help to report facts, to report issues from a balanced and accurate perspective that will help to inform the public and help them make the right decision in a balanced, accurate and relevant way, and this can save lives.

So that is why I am interested in health reporting, and that is why I have decided to seek proper training.

Q: What was the biggest misconception during the Ebola crisis?

SENKPENI: Even the government did not understand public health issues when it comes to risk communication. There was a lot of misinformation, but I think the main driving force is the tendency to fall on conspiracy theories. The idea that there were conspiracies had an impact on how the virus spread. I knew that if you properly inform the public; your reporting helps educate the public to make rational decisions about their health and minimize the risk of spreading the disease. The government has limited expertise in health and risk communication.

Q: What were the conspiracy theories?

SENKPENI: One was that the virus was spread on purpose to control people or use them as guinea pigs to test treatments, test chemical weapons on Africans or that the Ebola virus was a curse from God. And this was fuelled by government actions (or inaction I shall say). The lack of transparency seems to lead to conspiracy theories because people want to understand and they receive no answers from government “officials”. So they make up answers. And we, as a journalist, must help with facts, and request transparency from officials. But in order to do that, and ask the right questions, we have to be properly trained and we have to become specialized journalists. That is why I have taken the workshop offered by the WFSJ.

Q: What else can the WFSJ do to help report more sensibly and accurately during a public health crisis?

SENKPENI: The WFSJ already helps to build the capacity of health journalists. We need more expert health journalists based in West Africa to report from an informed background.

The Federation also needs to focus on offering resources. It can offer a platform with the resources that will help empower local journalists, who in turn empower people to make informed decisions.

Q: A final word before you take off?

SENKPENI: Despite the cold weather here, the Canadian people are warm, welcoming and very helpful and I’d like to thank you all for your support.