We are all a part of the ongoing conversation about the spread of Ebola. The news stories are ubiquitous; we consume them in many forms. We praise and criticize the organizations and individuals whose names come up in connection with the crisis. Often, we are lead by gut reactions and primal emotions. These emotions – dismay, anger, and hope – are reflected in the media. Examining the ways in which coverage of the Ebola outbreak has changed over time can teach us a lot about ourselves. Because public opinion can influence funding and policy decisions, it is especially important for health care professionals, aid workers, and those involved in the formation and enforcement of health policy to understand these changes.
As an employee at a company that provides custom web-based intelligence (a component of which is news-monitoring), I’m in a good position to assess recent coverage of the crisis. Last week, I entered the terms “Ebola” and “quarantine” into Gnowit’s software. What follows are three insights I discovered by viewing the results (note: the screenshot above represents a broader, more recent set of results – it was taken Monday, November 24th for the search term “Ebola”).
Fear is persistent
“Our government is working hard to prepare and protect Canadians from the dangers of the deadly Ebola virus.” So begins a November 14th article written by Nova Scotia MP Peter Mackay. The article, which was published in a New Glasgow newspaper, reminds readers that there have been no confirmed cases of Ebola in Canada, and reiterates the safety precautions the federal and provincial governments have taken to maintain this record.
Some of these precautions – namely, the federal government’s recent visa restrictions and quarantine measures – have had their share of critics. Many healthcare professionals and researchers have spoken out against policies they see as being developed on the basis of fear, not science. Exploring Gnowit’s dashboard, I found that newspapers from municipalities as different as Toronto and Weyburn (Saskatchewan) have printed or reprinted articles containing these criticisms. Of course, I did find support for the government’s policies. But one thing most relevant coverage contained – whether it was supportive of recent government measures or not – was some sort of assurance that a Canadian outbreak is unlikely.
Despite these assurances, public fear abounds. According to an article in the Toronto Star, “more than seven in 10 Americans support mandatory quarantines for health workers who treated patients in West Africa…”. A recent Ontario poll also reveals strong support for these measures. Newspaper comment sections – spaces where readers often express their unfiltered opinions – contain similar sentiments. A November 9th piece about a Winnipeg aid worker who undertook a self-imposed, 21-day quarantine garnered debate about the incubation period of Ebola, conveying the public’s ongoing confusion about the facts. Some commentators expressed anger toward aid workers who don’t wait out the incubation period before returning to the country.
How can this type of fear be controlled? What role should those in the health sector play in managing it? The answer to these questions may depend on who you ask. A November 6th article in the Brampton Guardian describes a complaint from a public service union alleging that a health official was treated unfairly in the workplace for speaking out against (what he saw as) a lack of Ebola preparedness. The validity of this claim has been contested. However, the story suggests that, when it comes to dealing with public perception and the Ebola crisis, there is some difference of opinion among those in the health care field.
How I found this information:
I explored the “daily buzz” bar graph, which provides an overview of news coverage over a two-week period. I started out by viewing days during which there was a spike in coverage, then used the automatically-generated article summaries to assess which articles would be most informative. For example, the piece containing the number of Americans who support quarantine measures came to my attention because the statistic appeared in the article’s summary.
I decided to take on a broad perspective, surveying coverage from coast to coast. Instead of filtering articles by their sources (which would have allowed me to assess and compare coverage from particular regions), I used the word cloud and sentiment-analysis pie chart to spot outlying articles and unfamiliar topics. This strategy helped me find the articles in the Brampton Guardian and Winnipeg Sun, among others.
Canada is connected to the countries hardest hit by the crisis
Early Canadian coverage of the Ebola crisis tended to focus on numbers. When the virus hit closer to home, resulting in diagnoses in the United States, news stories across North America began to change. Minute details emerged about not only those who had been diagnosed, but those who were under suspicion.
More recently, a (relatively) small crop of articles has focused on the interconnectedness of the global community. While aid workers are still viewed with suspicion, their efforts are being increasingly lauded. Dr. Craig Spencer, the first New Yorker to contract Ebola, was discharged from the hospital on November 11th. An article from the Associated Press focuses not on the fear Dr. Spencer’s pre-diagnosis socializing evoked, but the heart-wrenching stories he brought back from West Africa. It was reported that some of his former patients had called from Guinea to wish him well.
More attention is also being paid to the effect the outbreak is having on Canadians with West African roots. A November 12th Metro article describes the frustration of some members of Edmonton’s Liberian community, who have had to cancel Christmas trips due to recently-imposed travel restrictions. On November 14th, a CBC Edmonton article focused on the city’s Sierra Leone community. The author spoke to individuals who have lost family members to the deadly virus, providing readers with a perspective that is often overshadowed by assessments of the threat to Canadians. Both articles describe fund-raising efforts on the part of members of these communities, who are working to send supplies to the affected countries.
How I found this Information:
The articles on Dr Spencer’s recovery and Edmonton’s Sierra Leone community were discovered because they were positive in tone. Viewing the sentiment-analysis pie chart for a two-week period, I noticed that a mere 7% of all articles were tagged as “positive”. After skimming many disheartening articles, I was ready to read something (relatively) uplifting.
When I viewed the results for November 12th, I didn’t want to go through all of the articles. Instead, I clicked “Metro News” in the sources panel to see the pieces from one major newspaper. This is where I found the article on Edmonton’s Liberian community.
Not all international reactions to Canada’s response to Ebola have been negative
As previously noted, the Canadian government has recently come under fire for policies that – according to some – hurt efforts to combat the Ebola outbreak and ignore the civil liberties of Canadians. Officials from WHO (the World Health Organization), Alberta’s chief medical officer, and (now well-known) American nurse Kaci Hickox are just a few of the critics who have spoken out against these policies. Even a multinational mining company – Arcelormittal – has voiced concerns, appealing to Prime Minister Harper to reconsider the visa restrictions.
Amidst all of the criticism, one set of comments stands out. In an interview conducted by QMI Media, Sarah Crowe, a top official at UNICEF, praises Canada’s contributions to the Ebola effort. “Canada has definitely stepped up,” says Crowe, who goes on to acknowledge our country’s “three separate funding commitments” to the cause.
How I found this information:
The November 17th UNICEF article was discovered through our sentiment-analysis tool. Again, because it was tagged “positive”, the article caught my attention.
The information on the multinational company was discovered as I viewed the word cloud for November 6th. I noticed an unfamiliar term – Arcelomittal – and clicked on it. A handful of articles containing the story appeared. A bit of research revealed that Arcelormittal is part of the Ebola Private Sector Mobilization Group (EPSMG), a network comprised of businesses operating in West Africa. With the aim of helping the area recover from the Ebola outbreak, the group has met with WHO, the UN Ebola Task Force, and numerous NGOs. The EPSMG is one potential ally for those involved in the fight against Ebola.
Ebola, Information, and the Health Sector
In the weeks since the first Ebola case was discovered in the United States, public perceptions and anxieties have shifted across Canada. Now, more than ever, those who work in health care and health policy need to maintain a comprehensive understanding of these changes. Public opinion and media response – along with the technology that provides access to them – have an important role to play in dealing with this crisis.