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Public Editor Public editor: Care must be taken when writing about Ebola

This undated file image made available by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control shows the Ebola virus.

Associated Press

News organizations have a responsibility to be accurate, especially when it comes to matters of public health and safety.

Fortunately, The Globe and Mail has experienced writers covering Ebola. One is Geoffrey York, The Globe's Africa correspondent (and former health reporter), who has been to Liberia and written about seeing the vulnerability of Ebola patients and worrying about his own personal safety. "I've been on front lines from Chechnya and Afghanistan to Iraq and Somalia, and I've witnessed the devastation of earthquakes and tsunamis. Nothing is quite like Ebola. When you leave a war zone or an earthquake, you know that the threat is over. When you leave the Ebola zone, you could still be carrying the danger with you," he wrote.

His coverage began in March of this year when he wrote that the Ebola epidemic had been suspected in 80 deaths in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. The number of deaths this week stands at more than 4,900.

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Despite The Globe's informed coverage, there have been problems with some misleading phrases. And, while there has rightly been coverage of Canada's preparedness by Globe health writer Kelly Grant, we must remember that the real tragedy is happening in Africa.

The Associated Press has told its staff to exercise caution in writing about suspected Ebola cases since many turn out to be negative. "To report such a case, we look for a solid source saying Ebola is suspected and some sense the case has caused serious disruption or reaction."

This is good advice for The Globe and most media to consider whether there is real news value as opposed to following the fear factor.

"Screened for Ebola" is a phrase that has been used, but without context it is misleading. The phrase is used to describe temperature checks at airports and perhaps also a form indicating whether someone has been in one of the affected countries. That may alert health officials that someone has a fever, but not necessarily the Ebola virus, which requires a blood test that can take several hours or days. It has been used in several articles and recently in a photo caption.

The problem with using that phrase as shorthand for a temperature check is that it suggests to readers that Ebola can be stopped at airports and it's not that simple. Thomas Eric Duncan, who has since died in Texas, travelled from Monrovia, Liberia, through Brussels to Dallas. His temperature was taken as he left Liberia and entered the United States. Globe health columnist André Picard notes that "Ebola is spread by direct contact with a sick person's bodily fluids – meaning saliva, feces, urine, blood, vomit or semen. When Mr. Duncan travelled, the virus was in his body, but he was not sick. The risk to other travellers was zero."

There is a lot of understandable fear in the world about a horrific and virulent disease. So the journalists covering this issue need to take the time and care to explain the issues thoroughly to alert the world to the problems in Africa, but also to keep the concerns rational and not spread fear.

Mr. York wrote to me this week to say phrases such as "quarantine" and "isolation" and "21-day incubation period" should be used carefully, and explained when they are used, because it is easy to use them incorrectly or misleadingly. "There is normally no medical requirement for 'quarantine' or 'isolation' during the theoretical maximum of 21 days in which Ebola could develop in someone who has no symptoms. If someone has no symptoms, they don't need to be in quarantine or isolation unless they were in direct physical contact with the bodily fluids of an Ebola patient – i.e. if they were a caregiver or health worker. Yet some reports mistakenly suggest that anyone who breathes the same air as a 'contact' of an Ebola patient is somehow at risk. This is a time of great hysteria and irrational fear about Ebola, and The Globe has to be careful that the wording of its reports does not inadvertently contribute to this panic."

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Headlines and photos can also cause undue concern here. In an article by Kristen Hare, Kelly McBride, The Poynter Institute's media ethicist, said journalists need to look at the whole package and the message it sends. "A blowup image of a big scary virus, people in hazmat suits, alarming words in the headline, all that can overwhelm a completely reasonable story."

And that plays into the notion that journalists need to be responsible and not spark irrational fears. Shorthand phrases do not work with a disease like Ebola. That may mean longer and more complete articles, but it is worth explaining fully so that the public understands the real concerns.

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