BuzzFeed News’ Jina Moore arrived on Oct. 13 for her second trip to Liberia since the largest epidemic of Ebola on record spiraled out of control this summer. On her second day in the country, she sat down with a man she’d gotten to know on the last trip, an assistant minister of health, who said something surprising: That by several measures, the number of new Ebola cases was going down.
This is not the sort of thing you want to speculate on, or to tweet. Media coverage of Ebola has been broadly alarmist, sloppy, and wrong, focused on the wrong place — New York — while West Africa suffered. Jina is a veteran correspondent who has thought deeply about “the Africa story” and about telling Africans’ stories. Her 2012 essay, “The White Correspondent’s Burden,” is required reading, and her coverage of Ebola in Liberia was early, humane, and wrenching.
Jina is, in short, exactly the sort of correspondent BuzzFeed News’ foreign editor, Miriam Elder, looks to hire as we build a new kind of international news operation. Her story last Thursday breaking the news of the Liberian Ebola decline helps explain why BuzzFeed News is investing so heavily in putting great, experienced reporters around the world, doubling our foreign desk to more than a dozen correspondents. And her stunning body of work from Liberia demonstrates why we think there’s so much room for ambitious new journalism in this sometimes hidebound space.
Jina followed up on the official’s stunning assertion with the kind of reporting that has, after decades of cuts to much of legacy media, increasingly been replaced by reliance on official sourcing and spin. The World Health Organization, keeper of the official Ebola numbers, was giving no hint that the shape of the epidemic had radically changed, so Jina worked her vast array of official and unofficial sources to verify the new pattern.
She started with the data, spending two and a half hours with the Health Ministry’s numbers cruncher who supplies the WHO with data. She spoke to James Dorbor Jallah, the deputy incident manager at the National Ebola Command Center, who told her that “new case numbers are going down.”
Then she talked to the people in the business of beds and bodies. She called the “burial team” leader, whose heroism she’d previously documented, who told her that his group was collecting fewer bodies, and that they were coming from treatment centers, not homes. She spoke to the doctor who supervises the country’s Ebola Treatment Units, who had once told her that they were out of hospital beds — and who now said there were beds to spare. She spoke to the ETU nurses, who confirmed that the crowding had eased. She spoke to the people running the country’s dedicated information line, who were getting fewer calls. (FrontPage Africa, which has done stellar work covering the crisis since the earliest days of the outbreak, had also reported a key element, Jina points out to me — the drop in ETU admissions, in a story headlined, “Ebola Deaths Drop?”)
Jina’s reporting would have been impossible from New York or Washington or Nairobi, where Jina is based. It is too complicated and high-stakes for phone calls — “You have to be in a kind of dialogue that involves eye contact. And graphs,” Jina told me. It is also still expensive, despite advances in communications that have deeply changed reporting and afford her an audience of unprecedented scale. It requires specialized training to avoid Ebola and a plan to give Jina the best medical care should, god forbid, she contract the virus. And, most of all, it requires Jina’s remarkable combination of intelligence, rigor, experience, and hard work.
“You have to be able to put the data next to every tranche of human experience in responding to the Ebola outbreak, and to see that the human experience and the numbers line up,” she said. “You wouldn’t be able to do that anywhere else.”
It would have been hard for a reporter on her first trip to the country, who wouldn’t have noticed, for instance, that there were simply fewer ambulances screaming through the streets than there had been months earlier. And it would have been hard without Jina’s long commitment to relying on the local sources who know the most, and not on international or American voices to tell African stories. About nine of her sources on the story were Liberian, she said, though she also spoke to a few officials at international organizations.
“If you just talk to some Liberians they know a lot of stuff, and they have a lot more hours of expertise in dealing with Ebola than anyone else in the world,” she told me.
Four days after Jina’s story, the New York Times’ great Sheri Fink and New York Review of Books made similar observations. Thursday, the WHO confirmed that Ebola is in fact down, based on the numbers Liberian officials had given Jina a week earlier.
This is a story we will continue to report, and to handle with care.
“No one wants to make it look like the crisis is over,” Jina said. “If you stop too soon you have a bigger problem on your hands than if you never started at all.”
But it’s an important story and, most important amid a haze of panic and misinformation, it’s a true story.
Updated with a link to FrontPage Africa.