Former reporter offers new angles for covering vaccines, public health crises

About Bara Vaida

Bara Vaida (@barav) is AHCJ's core topic leader on infectious diseases. An independent journalist, she has written extensively about health policy and infectious diseases. Her work has appeared in the National Journal, Agence France-Presse, Bloomberg News, McClatchy News Service, MSNBC, NPR, Politico, The Washington Post and other outlets.

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Health reporters looking for another angle on covering vaccine debates should consider digging into the legal challenges public health officials face in considering quarantines and legislative measures prodding people to vaccinate their children, says Doug Levy, a former USA Today health journalist and author of the book “The Communications Golden Hour: The Essential Guide to Public Information When Every Minute Counts.”

Levy spent years in the trenches as a member of the media, and then as a communications leader for two large health systems.  He thinks journalists are missing the boat if they keep focusing stories just on people’s concerns about the safety of vaccines.

“There is plenty of conflict [in public health] but it’s not necessarily the right conflict that is being covered,” said Levy, who spoke about his book in a recent AHCJ “How I Did It” piece.

In his book, Levy draws upon his experience as a communications leader at Columbia University Medical Center in New York City and then University of California, San Francisco, School of Medicine, to explain how emergency officials can improve communications with the public and media.

“For example, there is a robust debate going on in public health circles on what the right policy responses are to the measles [outbreak]. … It isn’t whether vaccines are generally safe,” he said. “There is a legitimate question about the extent of a city’s authority to quarantine people. I haven’t really seen anyone tackling that.”

Another angle for journalists to consider is the civil liberties implications of legislatures eliminating exemptions for childhood vaccinations or vaccine mandates, he said. Further, he said reporters could do more to explain the science of herd immunity and risks of non-vaccinated people infecting the vulnerable in communities.

Doug Levy

“I think that health reporters are missing a great opportunity to inform readers and viewers … on the science,” he said.

Levy is working on a second edition of his book to focus specifically on helping public health officials to communicate better with the media and the public, especially during public health crises, like the measles, Zika or Ebola outbreaks.

“Those of us who are communicating about public health have to work harder than ever to make our stories clear,” Levy said, because public distrust of governments and health institutions is higher than it’s ever been.

“The rules that we used to count on don’t apply anymore,” he said. “My colleagues and I really felt this during 2014 [Ebola outbreak] when we thought that scientists with a lot of firsthand experience [in infectious disease would be] able to speak with authority. It turned out that’s not necessarily true anymore. The reality is, it’s who’s louder and says something more quotable. It’s who made the most noise. That’s not a good way to convey public health. It’s a real problem.”

See Levy’s How I Did It piece here.

Levy also contributed to AHCJ’s “Shared Wisdom” with some advice on how to be prepared to cover a public health emergency.

Vaccines, civil liberties & mandates: What is the balance?
Nov. 21

The measles outbreak over the past year shines a spotlight on the challenges of finding the right public health approach to vaccine hesitancy and refusal. Join this webcast in which three public health experts will discuss questions related to vaccine mandates, how to counter misinformation about vaccines when does public health outweigh individual liberty and more. Learn some answers to these questions and new angles on public health and vaccines.

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