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Priorities in Check

Priorities in Check

Priorities in Check: What the Ebola Epidemic Teaches us About News Values

Last summer, my Twitter feed went like this: ALS Ice bucket challenge, #vacation, beach pictures, and lastly, Ebola.

Ebola, remember that?

If you’re like me, then the absence of finding out whatever happened to the end of the epidemic (if it did end) is absolutely maddening. It’s like reading a book in class but your teacher decides to stop teaching it with 30 pages left to go. I was so used to the retweets and Facebook shares of Ebola updates, fears that it could be brought to the U.S., angry debates over quarantine policies. Then suddenly, one day, everything stopped.

Anthony Banbury, head of the UN Mission for Emergency Ebola Response, stated the number of cases would significantly decrease by late 2015, but the end is “not close”. Sierra Leone, which saw almost 11,000 cases, lifted its travel ban but recently quarantined 700 homes. More optimistically, in several of the West African nations most affected, schools are reopening. According to UNICEF, since January 19th, more than 1.3 million children have returned to school in Guinea. Liberia also plans to open the country’s 5,100 schools again, but this will be a most difficult task due to a lack of running water and proper school material, fear of a crowded building, and new psychological stress endured under the outbreak.  

Perhaps the most striking news revealed by the Ebola outbreak was not the inefficiency of global development organizations but the priorities of the media, and the power it has in influencing opinions and general knowledge. They say if you give a man a fish, he eats for a day; you teach a man to fish, he eats for the rest of his life. But I say, give a man power over major news corporations, and he controls the world. Think about it: traditional media- i.e. newspapers, radio, TV- decide what we feel is important based on what they report to us. However, beyond the words, there is still a world unnoticed.

The important thing about articles on Ebola was that they were guaranteed to make you feel a certain emotion: warm if it was about noble aid workers risking their lives, or instantly depressed after tragic ones. Either way, it made a good story. There was nothing too controversial about it either - politics, religion, and ethics weren’t the main debate.  

But what about other issues that are just as significant and deserve to be reported? The civil war in Syria is still raging on, the conflict over Gaza Strip is still happening. Plus, there are thousands of cases of missing journalists, unjustly imprisoned activists, government corruption and other human rights violations that traditional news outlets deems too minor to mention [like the case of Raif Badawi, a Saudi Arabian blogger imprisoned for criticizing his government. Learn more and take action here].  

There is, in fact, criteria that goes into deciding what stories to cover. Such conditions include clarity, personalization, reference to elite nations, conflict, resonance with audience, and unexpectedness. Because in the end, traditional media is just looking for a good story to get views. And what they tell you -or don’t tell you- could kill you.

So how can you combat media prioritization? I’m a strong purveyor of social media because it’s where things get real. Depending on what you’re interested in, following that specific account on Twitter can get you in depth coverage on those particular topics. Among my list is @USAID, @amnesty, @hrw, @MichaelSkolnik, @half, @corybooker, @UNESCO, and @greenpeaceusa , to name a few. I recommend following accounts of organizations as well as the people behind the causes. I certainly believe that in the Internet Age we live in, there is no more excuse to not know.


Emily Cheng is a senior in high school and an Amnesty International Student Activist Coordinator. She is passionate about human rights, the environment, and gender equality. In between figuring out her existential crisis, you can usually find her running, reading, or dreaming of future adventures. 


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