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What to know when reporting on COVID-19 vaccine misinformation

October 14, 2021

How can journalists report on controversial issues about vaccines or cover misinformation stories without amplifying those harmful narratives? We hosted a panel discussion with journalists and a vaccinologist to answer these questions and to share their do’s and don’ts of COVID-19 reporting.

One of the biggest issues facing the world today is that of COVID-19 vaccines. The landscape around COVID-19 and related issues, including vaccines, changes every day and it’s the responsibility of journalists to disseminate this information accurately to their audiences. The audience often reacts to these journalistic pieces with a plethora of questions about vaccines…

“Where can I get the vaccine?”

“Which vaccine should I get?”

“What reaction will my body have to the vaccine?”

How can journalists keep up this pace while still reporting accurately and ethically? We brought together a panel of experts to discuss the do’s and don'ts of COVID-19 reporting at our webinar hosted on 30 September 2021. The experts included a vaccine researcher from the University of Cape Town, Dr. Benjamin Kagina; a fact checker from Africa Uncensored, Linda Ngari; a fact checker from Africa Check, Keegan Leech; and a health and science journalist from the Daily Nation, Elizabeth Merab.

You can watch the full recording or listen to the audio version here.

Here are some of the tips that the experts shared with us:

The scale of vaccine misinformation hasn’t been blown out of proportion

A big question raised was whether the volume of vaccine misinformation is as high as what audiences have been told. In reality, the nature and technique of COVID-19 vaccine misinformation has been widespread and fact checkers are coming across new misinformation narratives everyday. The sharing of misinformation also often peaks when there’s a new development or finding around the virus such as a new variant or a new vaccine. 

“Every new wave of COVID-19 has come with a new wave of misinformation”- Keegan Leech

When the pandemic first emerged, fact-checkers were largely unprepared and had to source information about this new virus very quickly. In the lead up to vaccinations on the continent, however, fact checkers at AfricaCheck produced detailed fact sheets in anticipation of the misinformation narratives that they knew would emerge. Increasing the availability of well-researched conclusive information, especially in Africa, improves the kind of content that journalists and fact checkers share. Africa CDC has done brilliant work to ensure that accurate information is available on their website, but more still needs to be done by other entities as many data sources used by journalists remain outside of the continent.

Verify it, before you pitch it

Journalists have the ethical responsibility to ensure that the content they publish is accurate and verifiable. This can be achieved by identifying reliable data sources, working together with the right experts to provide accurate information, and following strict ethical journalistic principles to cover all bases.

It’s extremely difficult to undo the harm caused by spreading misinformation, especially in the case of a health-related topic, which is literally a matter of life and death. A key tip is to therefore do all your research before you pitch your story to your editor to increase your chances of publishing a story that is important and informs your audiences. 

"As a journalist, I have the first responsibility of how I pitch the story to my editor and how much background I've done on that story before I pitch it. If you cannot back it up, then you stand the risk of sharing the partial information that you have and this could do a lot of damage"- Elizabeth Merab

Tell both sides of the story

Even though it’s controversial, it remains useful for journalists to cover all vaccine stories, even if it’s about vaccine provoked illnesses or deaths. It’s unethical to close down one narrative to boost another. However, be clear to point out the broader context, and use facts and figures to back up your point. There are a number of people who are looking for reasons to promote anti-vaccination narratives. Do your research to ensure that your story isn’t one of them.

"The point of journalism is to put out the facts and let you [the reader] make the decision as an individual, and not try to shut out one narrative by pushing another narrative."- Linda Ngari

Government cooperation is critical

A problem across the continent has been poor communication from government agencies and leaving journalists without the information needed for their stories about COVID-19. The government should take the lead in providing reliable data. They must also conduct investigations using an established standard of looking into adverse effects following vaccinations. Thereafter, the results of these investigations must be communicated to newsrooms and the public.

Moreover, since audiences have expressed incredulity when interacting with government information, the government must also collaborate with independent experts to address public misinformation and to build trust.

"The messenger needs to be trusted by the public. This is a communication issue that needs to be addressed by the government by getting support and inputs from experts and finding out who is best to communicate in order to gain confidence in the vaccine"- Dr. Benjamin Kagina

For journalists using information from government sources, focus on information that is always true and is not going to change. i.e information on the disease, the treatments and avoid the questionable data such as case numbers, if it’s not verified by other sources.

For more information about this resource or upcoming webinars, please reach out at info@africadatahub.org.

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