How to talk about COVID-19 vaccines

I wrote a tipsheet on covering COVID-19 vaccines for The Open Notebook. If you aren’t familiar with it, The Open Notebook is a nonprofit publication that acts as a living manual for science, health, and environmental writers by providing them with tools, resources, and behind-the-scenes looks into how stars in the field do their work.

My new piece provides tools and resources specifically for writers on the vaccine beat—both those who have been covering the pandemic for months and those who are now incorporating vaccine news into other aspects of their reporting. It’s kind-of sequel to a tipsheet that Scientific American EIC Laura Helmuth wrote back in March, when the pandemic was first exploding into the historic news story it is now. I interviewed several experienced COVID-19 reporters, and gathered their advice on navigating all the complications of vaccine communication. I also compiled a list of resources on COVID-19 vaccines (including a few data sources which COVID-19 Data Dispatch readers will recognize).

While the tipsheet is geared towards journalists, much of the advice I gathered also applies more broadly to anyone simply talking about vaccines—whether you’re walking your dad through his vaccination appointment or navigating a friend’s mistrust of the medical system.

Here are a couple of tips that I found particularly valuable. If they resonate with you, too—or if you have other suggestions to share—please let me know! You can reply to this email, leave a comment on the CDD website, or hit us up on Twitter.

  • Put your numbers in context. When explaining the results of a vaccine trial or discussing dose administration numbers, pick your figures carefully and compare them to something a reader will understand. The best comparison is usually a human one: What does the number mean for an individual person and their community? One example that freelance journalist Maryn McKenna offers: If you’re saying that Operation Warp Speed has contracted 185 million vaccine doses, remind readers that there are about 255 million adults over 18 in the U.S., and the current vaccines on the market require two doses each.
  • Get specific about immunity. One challenge of explaining how vaccines work, Sarah Zhang says, is conveying the different levels of immunity that they provide. “Biologically, immunity is not all or nothing,” she explains. Tell your readers what it means to be protected from symptoms, from infection, from transmission, from mild versus severe illness, from one variant more than another.
  • Assign responsibility precisely. Since everyone is watching the vaccine rollout, Drew Armstrong says, journalists can “assume that there’s a deep interest in real and specific problems.” In other words: dig into the details. When you talk to a politician or public health official in your region, tell them exactly what the gap is in your knowledge, and demand that they give you specific answers. Such reporting can allow reporters to identify root problems rather than, say, allowing the governor of New York and the mayor of New York City to blame each other when doses in the city run out.
  • Remember that some vaccine mistrust is reasonable. Nicholas St. Fleur and McKenna note that some groups that have been hit hardest by COVID-19, such as racial minorities and low-income communities, are also likely to have bad experiences with the U.S. medical system—in many cases, bad experiences that took place during the pandemic itself. “If you’re going to bring up the statistics [on hesitancy], then make sure your next sentence brings up the history,” St. Fleur says. This history includes the oft-cited Tuskegee Syphilis Study, yes, but it also includes the lives of people in the U.S. who have been unable to access the testing and treatment they needed in the past year due to racism that is still systemic in the healthcare system.
  • Stay calm and keep your work in perspective. Just as vaccination—and the COVID-19 pandemic at large—is a deeply personal topic for many readers, it is a personal topic for many writers. But as communicators of science and health knowledge, we must remember the broader purpose of our work. We can’t let our own emotions drive our reporting. “The facts can be scary and dramatic enough—you don’t need to do more than that,” Armstrong says. André Biernath echoes that sentiment: “Breathe deeply, before you write something that could have a huge impact on public health.”

Read the full tipsheet here. It was also translated into Spanish by Rodrigo Pérez Ortega and Debbie Ponchner—you can read the translation here!

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