WEEKLY TRENDS IN SOUTH AFRICA OP-ED
Disinformation in a time of Covid-19: Anti-vaxxer media coverage
A march is a good way of getting publicity; it’s a tried and tested method for getting media attention. Indeed, marginalised as well as powerful entities like political parties use marches to bring media attention to their issues. Last week a group of anti-vaxxers held a march/protest outside Groote Schuur Hospital in Cape Town. There is talk of another anti-vaxxer protest/media attention-seeking event in Pretoria. This week we look at the media, how it could be covering these protests and what balanced coverage really means.
Read about the Groote Schuur Hospital anti-vax protest here.
William Bird is director of Media Monitoring Africa (MMA) and Thandi Smith heads the Policy & Quality Programme at MMA, a partner in the 411 platform to counter disinformation.
Week 27: Weekly trends — “both sides of the story”.
One of the few positives of the pandemic is that it served to highlight the critical importance of credible media. Most media saw significant increases in their audience/reader/user figures. While some of that may be due to more people being stuck at home due to the lockdowns, we also know that in times of elevated anxiety and uncertainty, the need for credible, fair and accurate information increases.
While the government has a crucial role to play in communicating what’s going on, it has been the media that have communicated daily figures on their platforms, carried expert analysis and unpacked the issues. In a series of briefs, we looked at the media coverage of the pandemic. As we noted last week, one of the most effective means of helping the public to be informed is through existing credible media. You can install this nifty browser extension (Firefox or Chrome) to help you discern credible and dodgy sites. Just because the media has access to the most powerful and knowledgeable people doesn’t mean their job is easy. The way they cover Covid-19, the issue of vaccines and which people and sources they draw on can undermine their credibility, bring greater confusion, and fuel mis- and disinformation.
A few weeks ago the Mail & Guardian was strongly criticised for running a piece that was seemingly focused on vaccine hesitancy. In its response, the Mail & Guardian asserted the importance of addressing and debating vaccine hesitancy. Without going back into the details of the particular incident, it does serve as a powerful example of how challenging some of these issues can be.
We have noted previously the issue of vaccine hesitancy versus vaccine denial or anti-vaxxer approaches and if we are to vaccinate the number of people necessary it is essential that vaccine hesitancy is comprehensively addressed.
We agree with Mia Malan and Nathan Geffen, “It is a fact, almost as incontrovertible, that there are safe and effective Covid vaccines, among them the two used in South Africa. Reputable newspapers should not publish articles contesting this. There are people who dispute the safety and efficacy of vaccines, but they are simply wrong.”
It was why we lodged a complaint against eNCA for interviewing conspiracy theorist and spreader of disinformation, David Icke. (We lost the appeal, but the battle isn’t over). At the same time, while we do not agree with the justification for running the piece by Ron Derby from the Mail & Guardian, we do agree that issues around vaccine hesitancy need to be clearly debated. There will be disagreements across media as they have different approaches, people and audiences, but what tips can they draw on to ensure that they adhere to good ethical accurate journalism in how they cover Covid-19 vaccines, vaccine hesitancy and the anti-vaxxers?
A range of international bodies including the World Health Organization (WHO) have provided some excellent tips for the media on reporting about the Covid vaccine. They include:
Don’t just report the topline
- Read the full study or report before publishing an article about it. The findings in a study’s summary may not be truly indicative of the full study’s findings. Medical journals are reviewing and publishing reports faster than they normally would, so knowing how to read them critically is crucial to accurately reporting on their findings.
- Don’t report based only on a press release. Always read the full study or research report.
Don’t trust data automatically
- Be aware of and willing to question stakeholders and data collection methodology. Request the raw data where possible and always include the details of the research methods in your reporting.
Use trusted and reliable sources
- Reporting is only as good as its sources. Be sure to use expert and knowledgeable sources to inform your stories on Covid-19 and vaccines.
- When reporting on a new vaccine or study, consult your country’s science media centre for expert evaluations of the latest developments.
State the source
- When reporting on scientific studies, reports, case numbers and vaccines, name the source of the information to show credibility and allow readers to search for more information on the topic. (WHO tips for professional reporting on Covid-19 vaccines)
Anyone vaguely familiar with ethical guidelines will see that those are pretty much standard tips for good journalism that have been adapted for Covid vaccines. They certainly offer good advice and we would encourage the public to look at them — not to critique the media as much as to use it as a powerful tool to check content that they receive.
People should be sceptical of content that is anti-vaccine, and those tips can help identify why they may not wish to trust it. Locally, we have our own excellent resources, like these from Bhekisisa which give us some deeper insight into the issues journalists face and how to report on vaccines.
These tips from the Journalist’s Resource are also really useful for journalists in covering vaccine hesitancy.
Despite these, we have been hearing from some newsrooms that they need to cover “both sides” of the story. By this, we understand some to be saying the media should give coverage to the anti-vaxxers. To be clear, there may well be some who oppose vaccines on a particular scientific or evidenced-based argument. So, it isn’t a blanket rule, but certainly, as a general principle, the idea that anti-vaxxers should be given media space sets up a false equivalency, between vaccines and those opposed.
Not only does giving them space seem to suggest their arguments have validity — as “the other side” — but it also runs the real risk of perpetuating disinformation. It is an act of self-destruction for any news organisation to knowingly disseminate disinformation precisely because it undermines the very institution people rely on for credible news and information.
Asserting that vaccines are gene therapy, have microchips, are designed to kill us all in six months or two years, that they are more dangerous than Covid-19, that Covid-19 was invented to spread the vaccines or indeed any such easily debunked and baseless claims don’t merit media coverage.
Good journalism isn’t “he said, she said”; good journalism isn’t one person saying it’s raining and another saying it isn’t; good journalism is going outside and seeing if it is raining. Similarly, good journalism isn’t about perpetuating bullshit, or giving credence to harmful views. Just as good journalists don’t give credence to assertions they know not to be true, like suggesting that Johannesburg CBD buildings are made of marshmallows, they should ask why they would give credence to equally bizarre views. It doesn’t aid in a debate, it doesn’t help inform people and for the massively stretched resources of our journalists, all it does is devote precious space and energy to something that is fundamentally a waste of time and may also cause real harm.
Again, to be clear, this does not mean that the good journalists should just accept the science, or what big pharma tells or sells us. Our media need to unpack and have ongoing conversations about vaccine hesitancy and consistently debunk disinformation through evidence and facts. As the tips above emphasise, journalists need to question and interrogate.
Our media need to provide enough information for audiences to make their own informed decisions. There are side effects to vaccines, as indeed there are to most medications. What is important is to understand what the likelihood of you experiencing them is against the far greater risk of serious illness and hospitalisation from Covid-19. There isn’t anything new about this argument, it is one many of us make in a daily trade-off. Antiretrovirals, for example, have some side effects, but their benefit far outweighs their risk. It is the same with vaccines.
It means, for example, that the media should not give airtime to known anti-vaxxers. Nobody is denying them their right to their views, but journalism is about informing people, not sprouting any codswallop there is.
Ivermectin presents an interesting case. The available evidence says it hasn’t been shown, in credible studies, to have the kind of wonderful effect some talk of. Our journalists should talk about it, help people understand what we do know and what we don’t about ivermectin. Far too often, however, the ivermectin discussion is set up as either it’s the wonder drug that works, is cheap and is being hidden by big pharma and evil governments (even though guess what, ivermectin fans, it’s manufactured by Merck) or it is simply denied value or discussion. In setting the debate up as being those two sides, our media fails its audiences.
The protests/marches present a slightly different problem. The general approach for covering marches is to show images of people marching, to interview a few of the marchers or protesters about why they are doing so, and then also speak to some of the organisers. If it is a big march, there might be visuals of the leader addressing the crowds or something similar.
An official, usually the person or group whom the march is directed at, will have some kind of sound bite. If there is violence, there is likely to be footage, sometimes of mobile devices, of SAPS or others firing rubber bullets or tear gas, people scattering, and then potentially images of people’s injuries and maybe an interview with the SAPS commander present. Before, during and at the end, the reporter will usually offer a bit more context — then it will be all said and done and back to the studio.
While that formula tends to give the basics, what happens when it is an anti-vaxxer march/protest, as we saw last week?
Following the same approach ends up lending credibility to the protest and those who are protesting. It gives, as we saw in some media reports, an opportunity for the anti-vaxxers to push and perpetuate disinformation. The standard formulation for reporting protests doesn’t afford the opportunity to counter or fundamentally challenge the assertions being made. Just as reporting on Covid-19 and vaccines requires adherence to the same principles of good journalism, it also requires that where previous formulations perpetuate disinformation, they need to be adapted and changed.
Many of the media reports on the march focused less on the march and more on the response by officials to it, like this one by News24. EWN online reported the march, had a visual of the hospital — with no protesters — and gave a cursory mention to the things people said, but then focused on Groote Schuur, Covid-19 in the Western Cape and other official responses to what was happening with a clear emphasis on the importance of being vaccinated.
Other media, however, repeated disinformation that the vaccine was dangerous and that more people died of the flu than from Covid-19. Ordinarily, of course, the media need to report what some of the protesters say, even if it is false and or offensive, but where it is clearly not true, the media need to counter the assertion with evidence.
Our journalists face a herculean struggle to report on our nation to us. Covid-19 and vaccines are challenging issues to cover and with minimal resources as well as exhaustion and Covid fatigue, we need to understand that they will make errors. At the same time, it is critical that they carefully assess and see how it is in the public interest if and when they choose to cover anti-vaxxers.
What can you, as a member of the public, do about disinformation and anti-vaxxer content you come across on social media? Report it to Real411. The more complaints received related to C0vid-19 disinformation, the more counter-narrative content can be published in response. Real411 is successful in issuing an adequate response or taking action because the system uses standard criteria and methodologies as well as the same rights-based criteria to assess complaints and determine what counter-narrative content should be distributed. We see, more now than ever before, that we need an independent approach to countering disinformation that causes public harm. Real411 does just that.
To make it even more simple, download the Real411 mobile app. Again, we take this chance to also remind you: We are approaching that magical period where political parties need to show us that they care, so in addition to asking about what they will do in your area, ask them to issue one public statement a month in the lead-up to elections that highlights and condemns any attacks on our journalists and then to demonstrate what action they took to help combat that. If they are edgy or push some other agenda, don’t vote for them because they don’t believe in democracy. DM
Remember, if you come across content on social media that could potentially be disinformation, report it to Real411.
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