Media Responsibility & Standards for Reporting on COVID-19 Vaccines

Journalists have a difficult task when reporting on vaccines. There is a tension between generating topical stories and avoiding providing a platform for anti-vaccine activists. However, traditional sources for credible, trustworthy news are being exploited as hosts for the spread of disinformation.

While a majority of the population in Canada and the United States are onboard with vaccines, about one-third are hesitant and ten percent are opposed. In order to achieve herd immunity, over 70% of the population needs to get vaccinated.

Because vaccines are our best tool for ending the pandemic, it has never been more important for journalists to consider how they portray vaccine safety and efficacy. The proliferation of misinformation presents a serious and dangerous challenge to public health. Unfortunately, the media — both mainstream and social — are being exploited by those with disinformation agendas. It is time we introduce and employ journalistic guidelines for how vaccine information is presented in order to stop the spread of misinformation.

To see the harmful rhetoric in action, take a look at an expose conducted by journalists at national broadcaster CBC. They investigated the commercial engine behind one of the leading proponents of anti-vaccine information in “Marketplace attended a COVID-19 conspiracy boot camp to see how instructors are targeting vaccine skeptics,” CBC, March 26, 2022.

Their aim was to reveal how anti-vaxxers profit from their fear-mongering. It featured Sherri Tenpenny, the self-proclaimed “grandmother of the anti-vaccination movement” in the U.S., who charges $623 for an online course riddled with misinformation to convince people vaccines are not safe — and gives them tools to persuade others.

While it raised awareness of the tactics used by anti-vaxxers, the piece also serves as an example for the need for standards in vaccine-related content.

People are looking for cues about vaccine safety — or harms. Evaluating the piece from a behavioral science lens reveals that it may have unintentionally provided “support” for the anti-vaxxer Tenpenny.

First, Tenpenny was described as having “hundreds of thousands of followers on social media and has appeared on popular far-right conspiracy podcasts, such as Infowars.” This reference to her “large following” and perceived authority, could be seen as an endorsement and not an indictment.

Second, the piece showcased testimonials from the course’s students, which creates social proof of the perceived importance and popularity of the content.

Third, the article was posted on the CBC web site and left with an open commentary section with little moderation. Instead of countering the misinformation with facts, anti-vaxxers had a field day posting misinformation. Moderation duties should include providing counter-points and rebuttals. As Dr Furness, the epidemiologist/IT expert explained: “it’s important that those spreading COVID-19 conspiracies not be left to their own devices.

Understanding how an audience might interpret or reframe media publications is one thing, but there are solutions.

People with concerns about vaccine safety are looking for guidance, making it crucial to introduce reporting guidelines.

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Media Reporting Guidelines for COVID-19 Vaccine Information

1. Be ware of false balance.

Because journalists are trained to take an objective approach to their reporting and to provide balance, they can fall prey to what is termed “false balance.” This common journalistic error can have particularly unfortunate results in the realm of vaccine safety. By giving space to scientifically invalid ideas for some, due to confirmation bias, it creates a sense of truthiness or outright even endorsement. It is important to emphasize that these ideas are false and state that “the scientific consensus is that vaccines are safe..”or “scientific consensus shows that this persons statement is unwarranted based on the evidence.”

2. Source the right experts and authorities.

Many people do not know the difference between qualified vaccine experts (such as medical doctor and infectious disease specialists) versus unqualified health care providers (such as chiropractors and naturopaths). Further, if someone has the title of “doctor,” many take that to mean that they are qualified and credentialed. Yet most anti-vaxxers do not have qualified or current medical credentials. If it is necessary to include them, then point out that they are not recognized as a qualified expert. While publications need to ensure they do not engage in defamation, the (lack of) qualifications should be pointed out in the biography of the subject. For example, “Sherri Tenpenny, a self-proclaimed anti-vaccine activist, who is not a credentialed expert in infectious disease, says….”. Alternatively, authors can attack the ideas and not the person by saying something like “Vernon Coleman, a former medical practitioner whose medical claims have been widely discredited and described as pseudoscientific….”

Remember, just by presenting the resources and opinions of vaccine opposers, it seems to some as if they are being presented as a credible, alternative source.

3. Provide specific guidance.

Throughout the article the content should be peppered with established and verifiable scientific facts such as “vaccines are safe and are our best tool for ending the pandemic.” Be clear that vaccines are safe, and that support is available for people with questions.

4. Provide signposts.

Throughout the article, references to reliable sources of public health information should be provided. Vaccine safety resources — places where hesitant individuals can seek reliable information — are vital to include in reporting.

5. Prevent your platform from getting hijacked.

Social media posts and comment sections ought to be actively managed. Anti-vaxxers are using these channels as platforms to wreck havoc on vaccine confidence. Engage a medical expert to respond to misinformation, have prepared answers to standard anti-vaxx provocations, and provide support to pro-vaccine members of the community by bumping their posts up. Enforce rules of engagement such as no bullying, requiring citations for claims, and not permitting gish galloping. Disallow links to propaganda sites.

6. End with a Disclaimer

Most important, conclude with a separate disclaimer with links to public health information. Have the final word on information about vaccines.

Here is a sample disclaimer that could be included at the end of all articles and posts about COVID-19.

######

Vaccines offer a safe and effective way of preventing COVID-19 and are our best tool for ending the pandemic. Learn more from credible scientific sources.

CDC

https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-nCoV/index.html

Immunize Canada

https://www.immunize.ca/covid-19-info

The Canadian Medical Association

https://covidquestions.ca/

CEO and CoFounder at BEworks, Faculty Lecturer at Rotman School of Management (University of Toronto)

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