Covering Ebola and the Next Killer Contagion

January 19, 2015 Updated: April 24, 2016

My alert husband cut out a howler headline and put it on the refrigerator: “Ebola Contest Brings Some Nifty Ideas.”

Thank you, Atlanta Journal Constitution, Dec. 13, 2014! You made me laugh while heroic medical people and others work to resolve a human tragedy.

So as I tried to think of a headline for this humble column, I felt mindful of the nifty Ebola contest. I was chosen for a grant-funded specialized reporting institute this week: Yippee! I expect to get some nifty ideas—on a very serious subject.

The message telling me I got in went like this: “On behalf of Al Tompkins, congratulations! You have been chosen to attend our Specialized Reporting Institute, Covering Ebola and the Next Killer Contagion, in Washington, D.C.”

We journalists generally refer to him as The Great Al Tompkins, because he is the Swiss Army knife of highly versatile and effective journalism mentors, able to bring the most anxious Baby Boomer to social media comfort, able to bring the most social media addicted youngling to see the beauty of shoe leather reporting.

Journalists generally refer to him as The Great Al Tompkins, because he is the Swiss Army knife of highly versatile and effective journalism mentors.

That is not even the tip of the iceberg that is Al Tompkins’s mentoring magic. I expect to generate some good and useful story ideas at this event.

Reading up on it before it even starts has already brought me some.

Politico ran an interview with the Ebola czar that fascinated me. It said on “October 17, when President Obama tapped Ron Klain as his Ebola czar, administration critics erupted in outrage.” I remember that, and well remember the #BetterEbolaCzars meme on Twitter, suggesting Dr. J, Dr. Pepper, and Dr. Zhivago were more qualified to oversee America’s response to the deadly virus.

Because Klain was not a doctor or a public health expert, but a political operative, people were skeptical. Yet the Ebola crisis, on these shores, has been handled pretty well. Nightmares did not come true.

Next month Klain will go back to his day job at the venture capital firm Revolution. He took leave to coordinate America’s Ebola response, and he told Politico “This has really been a problem-solving exercise. The medical science of what it takes to treat and stop the Ebola epidemic really isn’t that complicated. You just have to figure out who has the disease, isolate them from other people, and get them some pretty basic treatments.”

He also said that listening to and respecting people’s fears and concerns is and was an important part of responding to Ebola. To me, it showed the deeper aspect of the PR side of it. It is important to listen.

There were a lot of scary stories about Ebola soon after the unfortunate Thomas Eric Duncan came to Texas from Liberia. Duncan died of Ebola after getting misdiagnosed on his first visit to an emergency room.

We in the press may have gone a bit overboard. I remember us considering a front page around the concept “Who’s next?” and discussing whether we were sensationalizing the epidemic. We did not want to do that. Then there was the HIPAA privacy law and the ethics of reporting on people who were or may have been exposed.

As The Great Al Tompkins wrote, “Journalists covering the Ebola story are struggling to find a balance between patients’ rights, the public’s need to know what is going on, and the uncomfortable feeling that innocent people caught up in this story will be ‘marked’ for life.”

That is one more nifty thing to think about. I expect many more ideas to come to me this week.