Tips for Journalists when reporting on COVID-19 Vaccines
Having clear, timely, and accurate information from reliable sources is vital for the public, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. As COVID-19 vaccines become more widely available, the information will change quickly as trial developments and findings are released. It will be important for journalists to know what to ask and how to report on this changing information. We have provided a list of tips for reporting on COVID-19 vaccines below. We have also provided a companion glossary of terms that you may include in your stories to clarify complicated medical terms in your articles. By printing accurate information, the media can also minimize rumors and misinformation, helping reduce public anxiety and increase confidence in taking the vaccine.
Know what information can be reported from each trial stage. Although Phase 1 and 2 trials report findings among some groups of people, they cannot confidently say whether or not a vaccine works. Only Phase 3 trials provide clear results on whether a vaccine works or not, and whether it works and is safe for different groups of people. Phase 3 trials can also report the efficacy rate, or a measure of how well the vaccine prevents the disease. As you report findings from a trial, be sure to clearly note if these findings come from a concluded Phase 3 trial, or if they are based only on data from an earlier study phase or a trial that is still in progress. See the clinical trial definition for more information on each phase of a clinical trial.
Use reputable and official sources. Misinformation, rumors, and conspiracy theories abound, making it essential to cite reliable sources such as the Ministry of Health of the country, or the World Health Organization (WHO). Avoid non-experts expressing their personal opinions, as well as any other voices that minimize or exaggerate findings about vaccines or potential risks of COVID-19. We know from research that repetition of misinformation even when it is identified as false could “mainstream” it with others talking about it. Your audience may also more readily recall it.
Pay attention to trial populations. It is important to ask who was–and was not–included in the study. For example, a vaccine study that only involves adults aged 20-40 is not able to determine if the vaccine will have the same effect in other populations, such as older adults or children. It cannot determine if the vaccine is safe for groups who were not included in the trial, such as those from different backgrounds or with other medical considerations. Therefore, when reporting the efficacy of a vaccine in a clinical trial, be sure to note the demographics of the participants in the trial (such as age and sex), as well as if the trial included groups such as pregnant women, people with a history of allergies, or those who have another disease or chronic condition, such as arthritis or diabetes. This information is usually found in Table 1 of reported studies.
Read studies carefully. Before publishing a story about a journal article, read the full study or report. The findings in the study’s abstract, topline, or press release may not truly represent the 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 findings. Below are some tips on how to read a journal article:
- Start with the title and the abstract- This will give you a brief overview of what the study is about, and some of the key findings. Through these first parts of the article, you can tell if the study is about a vaccine of interest (such as a vaccine that is currently available in your area) and about the key points of the study in summary form. However, it is important to read more than just the abstract to find other details that are in the article.
- Check the dates-Information is changing very quickly. Make sure that the study is recent. You may also want to check to see if a more recent update on the vaccine is available since new findings may be published daily.
- Look for conflicts of interest-Look for statements about conflicts of interest such as the funder and what organizations the authors are from. Could any of those who supported or conducted the work profit financially from the findings? You may also check for acknowledgements, which may appear at the end of the article.
- Find the purpose in the introduction. If it was not made clear in the abstract, the introduction can provide more information about the study and why it was conducted. The introduction may also include findings from past studies that discuss what is currently known about the topic, rationale for the study, and hypothesis to be tested.
- Take a deeper look at the methods. It is important to note the conditions under which the research was conducted. The methods provide detailed information about how the study was performed. For vaccine studies, the most important information will come from completed Phase 3 clinical trials.
- Review the findings in the results. The results of the study will give the full description of what the study showed, including the data and analyses. It also includes tables, graphs, and charts that show the results.
- Read the interpretation in the discussion and conclusions. The discussion and conclusions will include the implications of the results, particularly when considering what other research has found. The discussion will include how this work compares to previous research, and may also list some limitations of the current work. The conclusions end the article with the authors’ opinion of why this study was important.
- Check the references: The list of previously published articles at the end of the article may contain other articles or resources you wish to read.
- See if there is any other information available. Some journals also publish key points or additional summaries of the “research in context” or “what this study adds” to the field. It can help you figure out what is new and different about the study.
Report the details. There are dozens of vaccines in various stages of development at any given time. When reporting on a vaccine or study, it’s important to specify the company that is producing the vaccine and who is funding the vaccine research. Always include the details of the research methods in your reporting, including the trial phase, sample size, numbers tested, and time period of the trial. Be aware of and willing to question the key researchers in a trial (such as the name of the study Principal Investigator, who is the head of the research study) and ask how the data for the trial are collected. Potential questions to ask the researchers involved in a study are below:
- What was the sample size?
- Who was included in the trial?
- What were the age ranges?
- Were children, pregnant women, and/or older adults included? People from different racial/ethnic backgrounds?
- Were people with a history of allergies included? People who have other diseases?
- What was the phase of the trial?
- What was the length of the trial?
- What vaccine were participants given? What was the time period between doses?
- How many doses did they receive?
- How carefully were they monitored during the trial—did researchers document side effects, allergic reactions?
- Were there any limitations to the study design?
- Was there a comparison/control group?
- Was the comparison group randomly assigned?
- Did the comparison group receive a placebo or some other treatment?
- What was the outcome of the trial?
- If it was a Phase 3 trial, what was the efficacy rate?
- Was the vaccine considered safe for pregnant women? Children? People with other diseases? People with a history of allergies?
- What are the potential side effects of the vaccine? Do these differ between the first and second dose (if applicable)? How often did serious adverse events occur? How often did allergic reactions occur?
- What is the likelihood that this vaccine would cover virus mutations?
- Are there data from the trial available for the public to review?
Use clear language and define scientific terms in every article. Most readers will not be familiar with scientific language used in medical reports. Furthermore, many members of the public do not know how a virus works in the body, how vaccines are produced, or how the immune system works. At times like this people are more willing to listen and learn. Some terms can be defined within the article but make an effort to write explanations in simplified terms so that readers across all levels of comprehension will understand. (see our glossary of terms for COVID-19 term definitions written in plain language)
Discuss the side effects. Let your audience know there could be at least some mild side effects to the COVID-19 vaccine. Clearly stating the possible side effects of any given vaccine will help inform the public and ease their reservations about vaccination. Providing this information outright will also help address rumors and reports on social media after the public receives vaccination and begin to report their side effects.
Learn vaccine logistics. Once a vaccine becomes available, people will have many questions on how and when the vaccines will be distributed. Below are some questions to consider asking once a vaccine is ready to be given to the public.
- How will individuals select or decide which vaccines to take?
- How much will the vaccine(s) cost? Is there a price difference between vaccines?
- What is the order in which groups will be vaccinated? What are the priority groups?
- How will individuals be notified when it is their turn to get the vaccine?
- What is the time period between vaccine doses?
- What can individuals expect once they arrive to get their vaccine (for example, are there questionnaires to fill out, do they have to wait after to make sure no allergic reactions)
- Will individuals be followed up by the government (or any other medical body) to see if they catch COVID-19 after vaccination?
Information in this document was drawn from the following sources:
- COVID-19: An Informative Guide. Advice for Journalists (PAHO)
- Tips for professional reporting on COVID-19 vaccines (WHO)
- Reporting on coronavirus vaccines: 5 tips to help journalists inject audiences with the facts (Journalist’s Resource)
- Project SANCHAR Journalist Training Program (not currently available online)