Empathy in Global Health Journalism

Dr. Tom Frieden, Director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, exits an Ebola treatment center. Source: CDC
Dr. Tom Frieden, Director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, exits an Ebola treatment center. Source: Center for Disease Control


There is a 1 in 13.3 million chance of contracting Ebola in America this year.[1] In fact, it is more likely to die from a shark attack and from a lightning strike than from Ebola in America.[2] Yet many Americans learned about the disease, feared the disease, and took seemingly necessary precautions to avoid contracting the disease. The only way most Americans knew about Ebola was through the media. Many news sources covered the disease in their breaking-news stories – broadcasting urgency and borderline hysteria in revealing the new epidemic. This overreaction underscores the importance of combining global health expertise with journalism: we need people not only who know medicine, but also people who know global health to report on stories involving health of the public in order to disseminate the most accurate information to viewers.

During the Ebola crisis, a Rutgers-Eagleton poll of New Jersey residents found that 69 percent of residents were concerned about contracting the disease in the U.S.[3] In large part, it is economic drive associated with “sensational” journalism that contributes to the greatest misperceptions about Ebola. For example, Elisabeth Hasselbeck of Fox News demanded on national news that we ban all people from coming in and out of the United States and put the entire country on lockdown. Steve Doocy, a Fox News host, accused the CDC of lying about the risk of Ebola because they’re “part of the administration.” Let’s put the Ebola risk in perspective: there were a total of eight Ebola patients in the U.S., six of whom became infected in West Africa and the two others were nurses working in close proximity with the disease. Just one week ago, eight people were killed from carbon monoxide poisoning due to a malfunctioning generator. A few weeks before that eight people died in a church van crash. Does this mean we should fear all gas-powered generators or driving in vans? No. This represents a fundamental problem in the way global and public health information is disseminated in America.

While the Ebola crisis fit well into the parameters of breaking news stories – precarious, impassioned, and ultimately new – the stories that actually matter in global health are rarely covered. This is, among other things, because the sheer inability to help so many people in need can be numbing. In every political conflict, there are global health implications from refugees to the spread of disease to undernutrition and sexually transmitted infections. Every natural disaster carries global health repercussions not only at the time of the disaster but also for years to come. Yet the reality of the matter is that people like stories when they are new, and they are less interested in the long-term consequences of political, social, and economic upheavals. So how can we make people care?

Highly politically polarized news sources contribute to sensationalist journalism. Image source: Wikipedia
Highly politically polarized news sources contribute to sensationalist journalism. Image source: Wikipedia

Every global health conflict in low-income countries has a corollary in high-income countries. Addressing the similarities in issues on opposite sides of the world, bridging the gap between health stories in low-income and high-income countries, would make global health journalism feel more relevant. For example, mental health has gotten immense amounts of media coverage in America recently, especially on college campuses. However, less known is that the most depressed country is Afghanistan, based on the 2010 Burden of Disease Study, where more than one in five people suffer from the disorder.[4] This is another complication arising from the current conflicts in the region, yet an element of the crisis that does not get covered. Cancer is another example. Approximately 72% of cancer deaths occurred in low- and middle-income countries where there is both a high burden of disease and a lack of optimal cancer treatment.[5]

Whether diseases are experienced in the United States, Kenya, Afghanistan, or elsewhere, they have the same etiology and symptomatology. So why is depression and cancer more important in the United States than it is in Afghanistan? Why is measles more important in the United States than in Africa or Asia where over 95% of the disease is spread?[6] The easy answer is proximity, but if we consider America to be the global leader we need not only know about political conflicts, arising but also the health conflicts around the world. If we care about the political conflicts in the Middle East and xenophobia in South Africa, we should also care about the diseases these people suffer from. The diseases are just as far away from us as the conflicts themselves.

Bridging the gap between health stories in low- and high-income countries depends on empathy. If humans suffer the diseases in the same way, we should empathize with people in distant countries suffering from a particular disease just as much as we empathize with people in America. The problem is not the lack of empathy, but rather the lack of global health journalists with the ability to take hold of the empathy and make it news.


[1] http://www.npr.org/blogs/goatsandsoda/2014/10/23/358349882/an-answer-for-americans-who-ask-whats-my-risk-of-catching-ebola

[2] http://www.npr.org/blogs/goatsandsoda/2014/10/23/358349882/an-answer-for-americans-who-ask-whats-my-risk-of-catching-ebola

[3] http://mediamatters.org/blog/2014/10/15/ebola-coverage-the-more-you-watch-the-less-you/201161

[4] http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/worldviews/wp/2013/11/07/a-stunning-map-of-depression-rates-around-the-world/

[5] http://www.inctr.org/about-inctr/cancer-in-developing-countries/

[6] http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs286/en/

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