Writer offers advice on how journalists can respond to COVID-19 deniers

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.

Dana Smith

Dana Smith

For Dana Smith, senior staff writer at Elemental, one of the biggest surprises this year has been the anti-science sentiment and the number of COVID-19 disbelievers among readers.

Elemental, a health publication on the Medium platform, invites comments from readers and some of them have posted about a “takeover by scientists” of society or that the threat of the virus is overblown.

“It’s pretty disheartening to see,” Smith said in a new “How I Did It” piece. “It isn’t entirely shocking, given the polarization [of the country] that we have seen, but you would think, this far into the pandemic, that we wouldn’t see continued denial of COVID. It makes us [at Elemental] think about how we can do our jobs better.”

As journalists continue to grapple with ways to respond to misinformation about the pandemic, or those mistrusting of science, Smith says the approach Elemental is taking is keeping a focus on explaining the uncertainty of the scientific process and how science continually evolves.

“For example, I did a deep dive on how the [SARS-CoV-2] virus is transmitted and why the understanding shifted from surface transmission, which was the predominant theory in the beginning of the pandemic, to the understanding now that it is an airborne threat,” she said. “I walked through the logic of how the experiments were done, and how scientists adapted their thinking about it. So hopefully people can understand that it isn’t that science is flip-flopping, but that science is a process, and we are updating recommendations based on what we learn. And that hit a nerve [with our readers.] One person commented that the article caused them to start wearing a mask.”

When it comes to covering the COVID-19 vaccine process and responding to those who might hesitate about getting the vaccine, she suggests that reporters focus on the extensive regulatory investigation they will receive.

“It is important that the [vaccine] results we have seen, have been consistent across the different manufacturers,” she said. “Emphasize that these aren’t the results of a one-off study; it is accumulating evidence. I am also encouraged by the scrutiny of the vaccines by the Food and Drug Administration. When a decision is made, I do think that will be [based on science] and will not be a politically motivated [decision.] [We also have to] be honest [with readers] in that these [vaccines] are going to take a long time to be rolled out and people will have to keep practicing social distancing and wearing masks.”

To see more of this interview, including Smith’s favorite sources on COVID stories, click here.

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