From Dallas, 5 tips on covering Ebola

A police line tape marks where the media is set up to watch The Village Bend East apartments where a second healthcare worker lives that tested positive for Ebola, Wednesday, Oct. 15, 2014, in Dallas. Fears of the Ebola virus deepened with word that the healthcare worker, a nurse, caught the disease from a patient in Dallas, and flew across the Midwest aboard an airliner the day before she was diagnosed. (AP Photo/LM Otero)

There’s certainly no formula for covering Ebola, but journalists in Dallas have had to figure out how to tell the story responsibly over the last two weeks.

I spoke with Rick Holter, vice president of news at KERA News, the local public radio station, and Tom Huang, Sunday and enterprise editor at The Dallas Morning News and an adjunct faculty member at Poynter, about how they’ve approached their coverage. Here are five tips.

1. Stay calm.

“I think the most important thing is staying calm,” said Holter, “especially for managers in the middle of it, even if you’re roiling a little on the inside.”

It’s natural to be freaked out by news of Ebola, but a lot of what we’re hearing isn’t fact-based, he said. So stay calm.

“It’s important to both be calm and to present the appearance of being calm.”

2. Think both short and long term.

At the Morning News, staff have two or three quick daily meetings, Huang said, to talk about the coverage for the day. Those meetings include people from several departments. But they’re also telling the big picture stories.

Dr. Seema Yasmin, whom I’ve written about here and here, is the paper’s subject matter expert, a physician and a former employee at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. She has written about how the CDC traces people, while reporters from the metro desk have looked into the hospital where issues first started, and education reporters wrote about the kids who came in contact with Thomas Eric Duncan, the man who died after becoming the first person in the U.S. diagnosed with Ebola.

“This may change given the news today,” Huang said on Wednesday, “but we also want to look at what experience other cities have had with diseases. We’re trying to find lessons from other cities that can be shared.”

3. Think about your team.

On a big and breaking story like this one, you need a main editor, Huang said. At the Dallas Morning News, that person has been Mark Edgar, deputy managing editor for news.

“So he is kind of the czar for the Ebola coverage,” Huang said.

They’ve made sure the social media team is ready to push out stories, engage with readers and take reader questions, which Yasmin has then been able to answer quickly in Twitter chats.

And figure out how those people are going to sustain this coverage. At the Morning News, they’ve identified second and third waves of reporters, Huang said.

“We’re deep into our second week on this story, so naturally fatigue is setting in. We’re figuring out who can come in as second and third waves,” he said. “That’s important in a story that’s ongoing, and we know this is going to be a long-term story.”

KERA has a much smaller team — eight reporters, with a total newsroom of 17, so waves of reporters isn’t an approach they can apply, Holter said.

But “we still use that philosophy.”

Normally, reporters cover their beats, with one person on general news. Now, they have a blogger focused on covering the news for the majority of the day, with daily reporters writing about daily developments and other reporters looking at the bigger stories around the the virus.

“We’ve tried to cover the day a little bit better that way,” he said.

They also work with NPR, so a big part of his job is keeping the lines between the two open.

4. Get it right. Then keep getting it right.

For Huang, it’s still more important to be right than first. “There have been times when we’ve really tried to make sure we have the right information and make the right decision before putting it out there,” he said.

One of those times was publishing the name of the first health care worker who was infected, Nina Pham.

“We knew it would be important to get confirmation from either family or friends or one of the official entities before going with the name,” Huang said. “You have to weigh the importance of the public interest in who this person is against that this is a young professional whose life and career will be changed by this. We just wanted to think through the considerations of identifying her.”

And they also wanted to be sure they were 100 percent right, he said.

“There’s a lot of rumors and misinformation that get floated in any breaking news story like this, so that’s why we keep putting out the information that we know is accurate.”

It’s hard to say what impact that has had, Huang said, since they’re still right in the middle of the story.

“I think we just really pushed hard to be responsible in our coverage and I hope we can sustain that.”

5. Don’t get too comfortable.

Just before Holter went to sleep on Saturday night, he wrote a friend a Facebook message that it looked like Dallas was past the worst of things.

“And at 5 o’clock the next morning,” he said, “I got a phone call from NPR.”

That Saturday, October 11, a health care worker tested positive for Ebola. On Wednesday, when I spoke with Huang and Holter, a second health care worker tested positive with Ebola.

One last tip, one that isn’t yet an issue in the U.S. the way it has been in West Africa — be safe.

Journalists at the Morning News haven’t yet had contact with patients or been inside their apartments, Huang said. But here’s what I wrote previously about how journalists who are covering Ebola in Africa manage that.

Ben Solomon is a foreign video journalist with The New York Times. When we spoke last month, he told me about the protective gear, the bleach and chlorine and all the rituals he now has to go through while reporting on Ebola. Here’s what Solomon said:

He’s gotten more comfortable over time, learning how to approach people and places, which situations require gloves and boots, which require the full hazmat suit (that makes it really hard to do his job.)

And then, it’s just a matter of percentages.

– “I’m not gonna touch anyone today,” that’s 50 percent of the risk.

– Don’t touch your face. That’s another 10 percent.

– Clean your shoes before and after visiting a home. That’s five percent.

– Wear gloves, that’s about 2 percent.

“Everything is just adding to the hope that you’ll be safe. There’s no guarantee, there’s no exact figure,” Solomon said. “You just have to have it in your mind all the time that one touch could kill you.”

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