Yes, Ebola is still a thing (or: On how sometimes big stories slip our minds)

There was fantastic news yesterday. A new Ebola vaccine has been trialled in Guinea with a 100% success rate.

I’m fairly sure though that a large number of people read that headline and (after saying ‘Great news!’) went, ‘Wait, we’re still worried about Ebola?’. Yes, we are. Just hours after the news (selectively) broke, two more cases of the virus were confirmed in Sierra Leone – not that you’d know it from reading the mainstream news.

I’m not judging, and I could be wrong – I hope I am. But it wouldn’t be the first once-global news story that has been relegated to the back of our mind. SARS is still something to be scared of, we still don’t know what officially happened to flight MH17, and we still haven’t caught Joseph Kony.

I’m not trying to be glib. We are, after all, busy people with many many things pulling at our attention. We can’t always concern ourselves with things happening 1000s of miles away. Can we? Should we?

News coverage is a fickle beast, but it’s not the only thing to blame (many moons ago I made a similar point about the media and terrorism). If every newspaper continually ran headlines about Ebola we’d stop buying them. The onus is on us as individuals to look into the things that interest us – just as a decade ago the onus was on us to buy the paper that most closely aligned with our views (and so would likely report on the things that we would want to read).

Yet even in the age of the information superhighway – where pretty much any piece of information in existence is a few clicks away, we still pay so little attention to what is going on in the world. Publications like Espresso from the Economist exist exactly because even people well-read enough to subscribe to a relatively high-brow publication still can’t be bothered to actually read it. The i paper from the Independent exists for pretty much the same reason. This despite the fact that there are plenty of incentives for us to read more. Countless studies equate how widely read an individual is to their intelligence (obviously), their open-mindedness to other viewpoints, and even their ability to empathise with other people.

For me, I try to read as widely as possible because I feel like I should; I don’t like being out of the loop with things. I don’t really watch sports, and when I’m down the pub and the chat switches to the Premier League I zone out. I’m ok with that, for the most part. But I can’t imagine feeling like that about everything.

It is difficult though. All this preaching from me, and even I hadn’t thought about Ebola for a while (also, there’s a reason that I know there are people out there who subscribe to the Economist and sometimes don’t read it). But how do I try and combat that? Well, I’m attracted to new shiny things and/or routine. A while back I had a job working at a tech festival, and I would spend an couple of hours every morning finding out about the latest advancements in the sector. It was a win-win for me, because I could a) read on the job and it count as being productive, and b) learned about a load of cool things. Even after that job, I try as much as I can to keep up to date with technology despite the tech festival gig being an unlikely repeat job for me.

To do this, I used to use Google Reader – its untimely death was a blow (I was a huge fan of RSS, and never really got into Digg or Reddit). Now though, I have adapted my own – admittedly convoluted – system. First thing in the morning I open up tabs of my usual news haunts and sources; everything from the BBC’s website, to Wired, to whatever Twitter hashtag I’m feeling at the time. An extension like Morning Coffee on Firefox, or Loadr on Chrome makes this very simple. I then go through and save headlines that catch my eye straight to Pocket without reading them. This stops me from falling down the rabbit hole of one particular topic at the expense of others, and also means that no matter what I’m doing I can read my news list on Pocket wherever I end up going that morning (I know we’re in the 21st Century, but I still swear by a service that syncs to my phone and lets me read things offline). Once I reckon I’ve combed every news source I’m likely to search, I close all the tabs and either reopen the Pocket application on my laptop, switch to a tablet and grab a cup of tea, or start reading on my mobile during my commute.

For the moment that seems to be working for me. Obviously there is still an element of self-selection that happens, but I like to think I’ve got a good list of news sources. For me, having some sort of system in place I think is important – though I recognise mine is perhaps unnecessarily complex. Though Google Reader is no more, there are other RSS readers around, and services such as Flipboard do a great job of displaying content.

Whatever method you use though, I think everyone should keep up not only with things that interest them – that’s the easy part – but also push yourself to pay attention to things you don’t necessarily relate to. Obviously one person can’t know everything that is happening at once, and nobody has the time to try. But you might surprise yourself how relevant a seemingly innocuous piece of information might become to you.