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What role should the media play when a COVID-19 vaccine becomes available?

What role should the media play when a COVID-19 vaccine becomes available?

Picture of Giles Bruce
A man pulls a wagon at an “Open Ohio” protest rally in front of the statehouse this spring.
A man pulls a wagon at an “Open Ohio” protest rally in front of the statehouse this spring.
(Photo by Becker1999 via Flickr/Creative Commons)

As part of its “You Asked, We Answered” series, the Center for Health Journalism has been asking journalists what questions they have about reporting on COVID-19. This week's question: “How can media efforts be used to encourage people to get vaccinated, once a vaccine has been developed?” — Inquisitive in the 90210

The nation’s leading infectious disease doctor recently told lawmakers he was “cautiously optimistic” the U.S. would have an effective COVID-19 vaccine by the end of the year. But will people agree to get vaccinated when it’s finally ready? And what role should journalists play?

“We are not running public health campaigns,” said Jon Cohen, a staff writer for Science Magazine. “That’s not our job.”

But he said reporters still play a valuable role in informing people about a COVID-19 vaccine, once there is one.

“We provide people — if we’re doing our job properly — with accurate information that’s fair and balanced and helps them make decisions without us lobbying them one way or another,” he said. “It’s also our job to highlight inaccuracies and highlight misinformation. That’s our role.”

With decades of experience covering immunizations, Cohen expects many people to be hesitant about getting vaccinated for the coronavirus. Polls have found that as few as half of Americans say they would get a COVID-19 vaccine.

But he said there’s a difference between healthy skepticism and being “anti-vaccine,” a movement that he says makes up a “small percentage of the population.” That said, he said he wouldn’t automatically ignore what any group is saying.

“My rubric is, basically, if it’s receiving a lot of attention I address it,” he said. “If four people are holding a protest on the street corner, it’s different from 40,000 people holding a protest. Four people — I’m not doing a story. Forty-thousand — yes, I have to pay attention, even if the protest is vile and wrong.” 

That doesn’t mean writing about vaccines requires “he said-she said” reporting, Cohen remarked: “If a vaccine proves itself as safe and effective in a big clinical trial and people are saying, ‘Don’t get vaccines because all vaccines are bad and you don’t need to put unnatural things in your body,’ don’t do the ‘he said, she said.’

“We provide people — if we’re doing our job properly — with accurate information that’s fair and balanced and helps them make decisions without us lobbying them one way or another. It’s also our job to highlight inaccuracies and highlight misinformation. That’s our role.” — Jon Cohen, Science Magazine

“You can point to how vaccines have expanded life spans and been a major force for good in public health. We chased smallpox out of the human population. We eliminated polio most everywhere in the world. We killed disease after disease I got as a child. Measles, mumps, rubella, chicken pox — you don’t see them. Diphtheria, tetanus — you don’t see these things.

“If someone says don’t get vaccines because vaccines are bad, that’s like telling me clean water is bad for me. That’s wrong.”

Dr. Paul Offit, director of the Vaccine Education Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, has received his share of blowback from the anti-vaccination movement over the years. But he believes the media’s coverage of immunizations has improved.

Twenty-years ago, he said, journalists would often interview him for a story then talk to an anti-vaxxer as the voice of parents, when he says those groups are far from representative of parents as a whole.

“I always thought (reporters) gave the other side of ‘Do vaccines cause autism?’ too much play,” he said, noting that dozens of studies have proven that they don’t. “Science isn’t terribly politically correct. You’re either right or you’re wrong. In the name of the balance, they felt they always needed to have the other side. That’s not true anymore. I think mainstream journalists anyway are much better about this.”

Offit also distinguished between anti-vaxxers and general vaccine hesitancy.

“I think people should be skeptical of vaccines,” he said. “People should be skeptical of anything they put in their body. I’m on an FDA (Food and Drug Administration) vaccine advisory committee. Everybody sitting around that table is skeptical. We want to see the data before we make recommendations.”

Most people, he said, just “want to be reassured, and they are reassurable with logic or data or reason.”

Doug Levy, a freelance reporter who has led communications for two large medical systems, said that when he worked for USA Today he had to convince his editors that not every science article he wrote had to include “both sides,” in the way political stories might. But he doesn’t believe skeptical voices should be ignored.

“If all of the science points in one direction, the other side … might be somebody who had a different methodology or didn’t like the technology being used or thinks the implications aren’t quite as strong,” he said. “That’s different from somebody who disagrees with vaccines in general.

Most people just “want to be reassured, and they are reassurable with logic or data or reason.” — Dr. Paul Offit,  Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia

“I’m not suggesting reporters take a side on ‘pro-vaccine’ or ‘anti-vaccine.’ But I think if you go back and look at how we covered Andrew Wakefield’s early research, for example, I’d like to think that diligent reporters would have been able to head some of that off a little quicker.” Wakefield authored a 1998 Lancet journal article suggesting a link between vaccines and autism that was ultimately retracted over misrepresented and falsified data.

As a former communications director for the CDC’s National Immunization Program, Glen Nowak has long tried to overcome vaccine hesitancy among the public. He expects Americans to be initially skeptical about a COVID-19 immunization, but doesn’t think it’s the job of journalists to sway them one way or the other.

“I believe there’s some role, obviously, for the news media to do updates on a regular basis on what’s happening on the COVID-19 vaccine front,” said Nowak, director of the Center for Health and Risk Communication at the University of Georgia. “I don’t think public health agencies should view journalists necessarily as partners in that endeavor.”

Instead, he said, journalists should take up their duties as the Fourth Estate to ask tough questions about the safety and efficacy of a potential vaccine.

So reporters can start learning now about how immunizations work, how they’re developed and how regulatory agencies approve them, as well as cultivating expert sources on the topic.

“Another recommendation is just being skeptical of people making broad, sweeping generalizations on every side: Vaccines will be absolutely safe, or vaccines will be absolutely a problem,” Nowak said. “It’s easy to pit one side against the other. What’s needed are more balanced and objective stories: How do we know they’re safe? How do we know they’re effective? How confident can we be about the safety of vaccines?”

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