There are all sorts of ways to counter reluctance to get the coronavirus vaccine. There’s leading by example. There’s guilt. And there’s pure charm.
Dolly Parton went the latter route last week as she got her first shot, wearing a sparkly blue cold-shoulder dress for her Instagram PSA and crooning “Vaccine” to the tune of her signature “Jolene.”
Anthony Fauci made an argument both moral and scientific, reflective of his Jesuit education. “Think about your societal obligation,” he told members of the military, about a third of whom reportedly don’t want the vaccine. He added: “Like it or not, you’re propagating this outbreak.”
And Boston Marathon director Dave McGillivray chose to inspire, explaining to the Wall Street Journal how he took the logistics expertise he would have deployed for this year’s canceled race and reapplied it to organizing vaccinations in Massachusetts instead.
Despite all this high-level persuasion, a big chunk of Americans — about 3 in 10 — remain hesitant, according to a new Pew Research survey.
And like Parton, Fauci and McGillivray, the news media has a role to play — not in outright advocacy, but in relentlessly providing accurate, nuanced information and answering questions straightforwardly.
“There is a lot to be said for honestly reporting as much context as possible and knowing the terrain into which your sound bites and headlines will play,” said Emily Bell, director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University.
Although Bell is eager to see more people move past their concerns and get the vaccine, she told me she doesn’t believe in downplaying the numbers on negative reactions to shots: “All you are doing is reinforcing the narrative of the ‘wellness bloggers’ that Big Pharma is hiding something.”
And what journalists shouldn’t concentrate on, according to one misinformation expert I talked to, is spending too much energy debunking myths.
Some of the most popular myths: That tech mogul Bill Gates is secretly implanting microchips in people’s arms. That the vaccine causes the disease. That there are toxic levels of mercury in the doses. That flu shots protect against COVID-19, so the newer vaccine is unnecessary.
But even though such notions are incorrect and damagingly so, “the media should not be playing Whack-a-Mole by debunking every obscure rumor,” said Claire Wardle, founder of First Draft, a nonprofit that fights online misinformation.
“The more you say some outrageous thing is not true — ‘No, Bill Gates is not microchipping you!’ — the more you give people the key words” that will send them down the social media rabbit hole of misinformation, she told me. “You’re giving it oxygen.”
Instead, like Bell, she believes it’s all about relentlessly educating the public by answering reasonable questions with as much expertise as can be mustered.
Local reporters — who tend to be relatively well-trusted — are especially important in this effort, providing basic information, and pointing readers or viewers to credible public-health sources. Sadly, there are far fewer of these reporters than when the pandemic began.
At their best, local news organizations also provide important watchdog coverage, as The Boston Globe did Friday in an investigative report about Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker’s administration disastrously pivoting to privatize vaccine distribution, with private entities awarded no-bid contracts “to undertake perhaps one of the state’s most pressing, ambitious initiatives in modern times.”
The media’s role, to date, has been far from perfect. Early on, the overemphasis of allergic reactions — without enough context — set a bad standard.
And some experts think the media coverage has been too pessimistic overall.
“The public has been offered a lot of misguided fretting over new virus variants, subjected to misleading debates about the inferiority of certain vaccines, and presented with long lists of things vaccinated people still cannot do, while media outlets wonder whether the pandemic will ever end,” sociologist Zeynep Tufekci wrote in the Atlantic.
Still, there’s evidence that some people are changing their minds. The number of those who don’t intend to get the vaccine has come down from about 40% a few months ago to about 30% now, according to the new Pew numbers.
Vaccine coverage still has room for improvement.
“What the public needs to hear,” Tufekci wrote, ” … is that based on existing data, we expect them to work fairly well — but we’ll learn more about precisely how effective they’ll be over time, and that tweaks may make them even better.”
Before last year’s election, the reality-based media — to its everlasting credit — got across the idea that election night probably wouldn’t provide the answer to who won the presidency, that it might take weeks to count the vote.
The media succeeded by repeating this message over many weeks, basing their accounts on credible experts, and warning about misinformation campaigns. When the pandemic-hampered vote count did indeed take several days, most news consumers were prepared to recognize this as acceptable, and far less likely to buy into the lie that the election had been stolen.
Call it a victory, rare enough these days, for good information over bad.
Vaccine coverage — with its life-or-death implications — is even more consequential. We need to get it right.