About News

How the News Media Can Vaccinate Against Misinformation

Tom Arenberg is an instructor of news media at the University of Alabama.

The looming public distribution of COVID-19 vaccines offers great optimism for ending the pandemic. But doing so requires a substantial majority of the population to acquire immunity either by contracting and recovering from the disease or by getting a vaccine.

Good luck with that, everyone. We live in a society where we can’t even agree that the coronavirus is real, much less that we all ought to wear masks and get vaccinated.

Making matters worse are the approximately 39 percent of Americans who say they probably or definitely will not seek a COVID vaccine, according to a Pew Research survey in November. If that number holds or goes up, that could be an obstacle to achieving the desired herd immunity that protects everyone.

The skeptics’ reasons range from understandable – whether a vaccine developed in such an accelerated time frame is safe and effective – to myths and conspiracy theories: You can get a disease from its vaccine. Vaccines cause autism. Bill Gates put microchips in the ones we’re getting now. That list will get longer. Mistrust is especially high among African-Americans, many of whom haven’t forgotten infamous cases of medical research that actually weren’t that long ago.

The success of COVID vaccinations will hinge greatly on effective public messaging by health officials and government leaders. The news media will play a crucial role, as well. Here are some recommended best practices that mainstream national and local news media should follow if we’re going to whip this thing. (I offer no hope for the right-wing news outlets that are busy covering Lalaland.)

  • Pursue first hand accounts of the suffering of COVID-19 patients. This is still too much of a hidden story. A little fright could go a long way. Hospitals must worry about privacy, but news media negotiating access for visuals is key.
  • Explain the concept of herd immunity and the required threshold. And don’t stop.
  • Report on influential people locally and nationally getting vaccinated. These are behavior leaders who can range from ex-presidents and celebrities to mayors and neighborhood preachers. In the case of elected officials, they cannot claim privacy as to whether they’ve inoculated or not.
  • Lean on doctors and other medical experts as interview sources. Local media should know that local experts carry more clout than those from faraway institutions. Always check source credentials, in particular their field of specialty (the Scott Atlas rule).
  • Limit comments by vaccine recipients to what they know first hand, such as side effects. But no medical self diagnosis, because patients are often clueless. If they say the vaccine gave them COVID, they’re wrong. Keep it in the notebook.
  • Explain, every time, that side effects of varying kinds are likely. They don’t mean something has gone haywire.
  • Debunk misinformation and disinformation (misinformation with deliberate intent). I acknowledge the alternative of the news media ignoring falsehoods, because publicity of any kind could backfire into more, not less, appeal among people who are predisposed. But my department colleague, Dr. Jiyoung Lee, an expert in health misinformation, points out that disinformation has avenues for rapid spreading, such as social media, so the news media needs to “actively monitor and respond to it.” They must debunk effectively, though. The knockdown should begin in the same sentence that introduces the misinformation. A story that evenly balances wrong statements with corrective facts is a failure. That’s false equivalency and it’s dangerous. Lee also points out the need to state why a claim is false, using specific evidence.
  • In opinion pieces aimed at changing the views and actions of vaccine resisters, go heavy on facts, express understanding of their concerns, and spare the belittling attacks, because that only makes them more stubborn. “Negative framing may stigmatize them,” Lee said. Aim to collectively motivate, not to “incite shame or anger.” Good advice. But withholding judgment on individuals who stand in the way of ending the coronavirus pandemic may be the hardest commandment of all.

Tom Arenberg is an instructor of news media at the University of Alabama. He worked for The Birmingham News and the Alabama Media Group for 30 years. He published this commentary originally as a post on his blog, The Arenblog.

About News is a BirminghamWatch feature that publishes commentary by those who teach the craft and think about the values and performance of today’s journalism, a civic flashpoint. BirminghamWatch is a member of the Institute for Nonprofit News whose members generally rely on individual gifts, foundation grants and sponsorships to support their work. It also publishes About News articles on Facebook and Twitter and invites readers to join the conversation about their news in those forums.