Cameraman's Ebola infection has news organizations assessing risks of coverage
by: DAVID BAUDER , Associated Press
NEW YORK — For media covering the spread of Ebola in West Africa, the infection of a cameraman who works for NBC offers both a reason to emphasize precaution and to continue to bear witness.
The New York Times' approach is emblematic of many news organizations: "We want to figure out a way to have maximum protection for people involved in the coverage and also to continue the coverage," said Joseph Kahn, the newspaper's international editor.
Other than NBC, no news outlet has publicly cited Ashoka Mukpo's infection as the impetus for removing personnel from Liberia, where the freelance cameraman had been covering the disease's rapid spread and the strains it placed on its health care system. CNN announced Friday that it was sending reporter Nima Elbagir to that country this weekend and Sanjay Gupta, its most visible medical correspondent, said he's lobbying his bosses to send him there.
Mukpo, who previously covered Ebola for several news outlets, began working for NBC on Tuesday and fell ill the next day. NBC said Friday it was concentrating on how to get him and his colleagues out of the country before discussing future coverage plans. He was working with medical correspondent Dr. Nancy Snyderman, who said she and others with NBC feel fine, though the network ordered them to return to the United States and quarantine themselves until any danger has passed.
The "Today" show interviewed Snyderman Friday via phone because the camera gear that NBC used in Liberia was being disinfected.
"While we are being hyper vigilant, we are at very, very, very low risk of becoming ill," Snyderman said.
In addition to NBC, Mukpo has covered the epidemic for Al Jazeera and Vice News, which said he shot footage for the organization's documentary about Liberia, "The Fight Against Ebola." CBS News, which hasn't sent its own reporters to Liberia, said Friday it had used some of Mukpo's work to illustrate a story.
The risks to journalists were evident during the Vice documentary, when correspondent Danny Gold and his camera operator — not Mukpo — debated interviewing some Ebola-infected people who were having trouble finding health care facilities to treat them. "What's your vibe?" Gold asked his colleague. They decided not to conduct the interview.
The Associated Press has used a team of journalists to cover the story, including AP reporters Krista Larson and Jonathan Paye-Layleh, photographers Jerome Delay and Abbas Dulleh, video producer Andrew Drake and TV contributor Wade Williams. The journalists eat all meals in their hotel, and wash their shoes with a mixture of bleach and water when they return from reporting. They don't take cabs or rides with drivers they don't know.
The reporters seek to interview people outside of their homes and try not to touch anything or sit down when in neighborhoods affected by the epidemic, Larson said.
The reporting entails risk which the AP does its best to contain, said John Daniszewski, senior managing editor for international news. But it has not pulled reporters away from the story.
"The Ebola epidemic is not only critically important to the people of West Africa, where homes and lives are being ravaged, but for the entire world facing a threat of the spread of this terrifying disease," he said.
ABC News' chief health and medical editor, Richard Besser, was returning from Liberia on Friday, a trip he had planned before learning of Mukpo's infection.
Besser said on "Good Morning America" that he would not allow his camera operator or producer to go into any area where Ebola patients were being treated.
"We never went into the home of anyone with Ebola," he said. "We never shook hands with anyone or touched anyone here."
ABC News President James Goldston on Thursday afternoon sent a memo to his staff explaining why Besser and his colleagues were not being quarantined upon their return to the United States the way NBC's Snyderman is. Goldston said he was following Centers for Disease Control guidelines and that Besser was judged to have no known exposure to the virus.
The New York Times has four journalists working in the area and the Washington-based Helene Cooper had a story dateline from Liberia this week. The newspaper trains its reporters on how to minimize danger and doesn't force them into situations where they feel uncomfortable, Kahn said. If the disease spreads so quickly that reporters feel there is no safe haven or safe place to be treated, that might force some reevaluation of deployment plans, but it hasn't reached that point, he said.
CNN's Gupta has been in Dallas, covering the case of the first American diagnosed with Ebola, Thomas Eric Duncan. Gupta was in Africa in April covering Ebola and wants to return.
"From a medical perspective, you have to treat the root cause as opposed to the symptoms and the root cause of what is happening anywhere around the world is in West Africa, so that is really where the story is," he said.
Al Jazeera said it currently doesn't have anyone stationed in Liberia. The BBC said it would not discuss its staffing of the story. "Health and safety of our staff is paramount and we continue to monitor the situation and assess the risks," said spokeswoman Francesca Sostero.