Video & recap: COVID vaccine – How to communicate reliably and combat disinformation

COVID vaccine facts matter, but where they come from may matter more, say NPCJI program panelists

The U.S. is in the process of the largest vaccination campaign in its history. Journalists and communicators face many challenges as the story unfolds.  

From a historical distrust between minority communities and the medical establishment to the growing anti-vaccination movement, how can journalists and communicators reliably provide the public with trusted information so they can make life-or-death decisions about the COVID-19 vaccine?

Offering their insights in a program on Jan. 13 were Jesse Holland, assistant professor of journalism at George Washington University, author, scholar and African American history expert; Nick Sugai, vice president at the Ad Council; and Susan Winckler, CEO of the Reagan-Udall Foundation for the Food and Drug Administration. Alison Fitzgerald Kodjak, investigations editor at The Associated Press and the 112th president of the National Press Club, moderated the panel.



What are some obstacles to vaccination? 

Holland: Because history tells us that communities of color always get the short end of the stick when it comes to medicine, it’s going to be hard for people to believe all of a sudden that this history doesn’t count anymore and they should just take the word of doctors and of the government that this is something that they should do.

Sugai: We’ve done a survey recently: 40% of people in this country don’t feel they have enough information to make an informed decision about the vaccine. And when you look at communities of color, that gets up to 60% for Black and Hispanic populations. 60% of people don’t feel like they have enough information to make an informed decision and be confident about getting the vaccine. 

What messages will resonate right now? 

Winckler: We still don’t know everything that we want to know about the virus … And so continuing to acknowledge that this is based on what we know today, and we’re going to continue to learn and we want to adapt the guidance based on what we’d like to know. 

Sugai: Just as important as the messages, who is the messenger? We know that medical experts and doctors are still very trusted. Institutions like the CDC are still trusted. And then within local communities, you know, state and local departments of public health are very trusted as well. We’re also doing outreach to the faith community; we know that pastors and faith leaders are very trusted. And we want to make sure that people are getting the right information from a variety of sources.

Holland: There has to be a push in ethnic media to get the word out to people who are not reading and not following mainstream media. We have to go to the Black Press, we have to go to the Hispanic Press, we have to go to the Asian Press, we have to go to the Native American Press. These are the organizations these communities not only are reading, but they’re the ones that they trust.

Winckler: We also need to go beyond the media. We tested “who are the messengers who should answer questions about the vaccine?” And celebrities were dead last. It was my doctor, my nurse, my pharmacist — so, my health care professional. 

What is your guidance on responding to misinformation and disinformation? 

Sugai: The reality is at this moment in the United States, 9 million people have gotten the vaccine already. So anyone getting it from this point forward, you are the 10 millionth person getting it there — there have been lots of people who’ve gotten it, many of whom are doctors and nurses and medical experts, you know, frontline health care workers are at the head of the line to get this. Things like that to reframe these narratives about people worried about being among the first to get it can make a big difference.

Holland: We can’t just ignore disinformation and misinformation anymore, especially about these important topics. If you do, especially with social media, that will just allow the lie to get around the world before the truth puts on his shoes…

We have to understand that it’s not a reporter’s job to advocate for people to take a vaccine. That’s not what they do; their job is to go out and see what’s going on and report accurately and fairly what they actually see, discover and can prove. We need to aim any vaccination advocacy efforts toward columnists and communicators, and commentators and editorial boards.

Some additional tips from the panel: 

  • Use reporting to answer the questions that people have — which requires active listening where people are (virtually or otherwise) in their communities. Then, connect people to the vetted, scientific information that can alleviate their concerns.
  • Consider the influencer roles within your newsroom, including columnists, guest columnists, editorial boards. Reporters aren’t in the position to instruct people to take the vaccine, but other roles are. 
  • The scientific community is learning along with communities as the virus evolves. Communicate clearly in your reporting and writing what is happening as vaccinations take place and that it is based on what scientists know today. 
  • Remember that people consume media outside of local advertising and traditional news sources: With fragmented media landscape, approach information sharing from different angles.

About NPCJI’s programs

The National Press Club Journalism Institute has added online programming, a daily newsletter, a weekly writing group, and other support for journalists since the pandemic started, and the Institute has waived fees for everything due to the COVID-19 pandemic at a savings of more than $52,000 to participants like you. If you value what you’ve been learning from the Institute during this time, please consider a donation of $5, $10, or whatever you can contribute.

Contact Journalism Institute Executive Director Julie Moos with questions.

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