An example of COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy reporting done right

About Tara Haelle

Tara Haelle (@TaraHaelle) is AHCJ's medical studies core topic leader, guiding journalists through the jargon-filled shorthand of science and research and enabling them to translate the evidence into accurate information.

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I’ve written previously on Covering Health about the potential harms of reporting on surveys and polls about people’s intent to get the COVID-19 vaccine. In late September, the FDA had not yet authorized any vaccines, so any poll or survey questions were theoretical. Now that vaccines are in distribution, however, does that change things?

Well, yes and no. At that time, I also wrote that vaccine hesitancy wasn’t what we needed to worry about— instead, it was access and equity. That’s certainly been borne out as vaccine demand remains high and our incredibly fragmented health care system is failing to get the vaccine to those who want and need it. Serious vaccine hesitancy or refusal that hinders herd immunity remains far in the future, but that doesn’t mean that hesitancy is a complete non-issue now, primarily if it interacts with equity or deals with health care providers not getting the vaccine. The question is how to report on it responsibly, focusing on what’s important and relevant, without inadvertently increasing it.

Fortunately, journalist Fran Kritz has provided excellent work to illustrate that: an excellent vaccine hesitancy article in the time of COVID. Kritz’s article at NPR is on vaccine hesitancy, yes. Still, it’s specifically on how to overcome it. It reports on a tried-and-true, evidence-based strategy that years of research have shown to be effective: using trusted messengers to deliver health information.

Kritz reached out to me on Twitter while she was reporting to see if I had revised my recommendations on hesitancy reporting now that the vaccines were here. I still thought it was premature and unhelpful to cover vaccination intent surveys, but there are ways to mention surveys that don’t undermine vaccine confidence.

“For example, if a story is looking at an increase in vaccine confidence/uptake, and you’re exploring the reasons for that by talking to experts in vaccine hesitancy, that could be a good piece and not potentially undermining in the way I discussed,” I wrote her. “Or, if hesitancy has increased in one demographic, or not moved in one demographic when it did with others, you could certainly talk to experts in hesitancy with knowledge of that demographic and write a good, responsible story about why the needle isn’t moving with that group and what it means.”

The key message in there is talking to experts *in vaccine hesitancy* to discuss the specific issue you’re reporting on — as opposed to a story that repeats survey findings with a headline blaring that more than half of people don’t want the vaccine.

“It’s not that we can’t or shouldn’t write about hesitancy at all,” I told Kritz. “Rather, it’s that just doing a quick straight news piece that shares survey results without context or analysis isn’t helpful. Most of the stories I was seeing had quotes from physicians, including outspoken vaccine advocates, but the reporters hadn’t spoken to the researchers who directly, specifically study vaccine hesitancy and its reasons/motivations/etc.”

Kritz, on the other hand, spoke to experts who are familiar with the research on vaccine hesitancy. One of her sources says that “waving journal studies and talking points won’t work in many communities”—and that’s exactly correct (but not something I frequently see in articles on this topic). She goes on to explore why hesitancy exists in specific communities — with good reason — and how organizations, such as the National Medical Association, a Black professional association of physicians, are working to support those communities and provide them with accurate information they can trust.

Kritz does mention deep in her article a Kaiser Family Foundation survey finding that just over a quarter of the public remains uneasy about COVID-19 vaccines, but, importantly, that survey is not the focus or even in the lede of her story. Her story focuses on those communities with concerns about the vaccines and how public figures those communities trust, from clergy to entertainment stars, can become ambassadors for scientific information to those communities. She speaks with representatives of those communities and discusses the nuances of culture and communication that can be key to overcoming hesitancy.

In short, Kritz did a phenomenal job at reporting on an important aspect of vaccine hesitancy that *is* commonly overlooked, and she put in the legwork to ensure it was a comprehensive, thoughtful, responsible piece. Definitely check it out, and see how covering COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy can be done well.

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