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'Don't trust data automatically, use reliable sources': WHO warns on COVID vaccine reporting

The WHO said that journalists need to read the full study or report before publishing an article about it and should be willing to question stakeholders and data collection methodology

Chitranjan Kumar | December 7, 2020 | Updated 18:45 IST
'Don't trust data automatically, use reliable sources': WHO warns on COVID vaccine reporting
WHO said that reporting on a new COVID-19 vaccine is only as good as its sources

As COVID-19 vaccines move closer to rollout, there has been a deluge of news and updates about the latest vaccine candidates. That includes false claims about how safe and effective these vaccines are, and about their ingredients and side effects.

In a move to counter a tide of coronavirus-related online misinformation, World Health Organisation (WHO) has urged media to do responsible reporting on COVID-19 vaccines. With more than 100 vaccines currently in various trial phases and some reaching the pre-approval stage or being authorised for emergency use, accurate science reporting has never been more important, the international public health organisation said on Monday. The agency said that the situation is constantly evolving but some general guidelines that should be followed by media whenever possible.

"Journalists play a vital role in informing the public on science, specifically vaccine, developments, in an unprecedented period of scientific publishing," WHO said in a press release.

The guidelines from the WHO on media reporting on COVID-19 vaccines are as follows:

Don't just report the topline

The WHO said that journalists need to 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 their findings, it said.

"Don't report based only on a press release. Always read the full study or research report," it said.

Don't trust data automatically

The WHO reminded journalists to 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, it urged media.

Use trusted and reliable sources

The WHO said that 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," it said.  

When reporting on a new vaccine or study, consult your country's science media centre for expert evaluations of the latest developments, the agency said.  

State the source

In case of reporting on scientific studies, reports, case numbers and vaccines, journalists need to name the source of the information to show credibility and allow readers to search for more information on the topic, WHO said.

Define the terms

Although certain scientific words may be used frequently in reporting on COVID-19 and vaccines, it is important to define scientific terms in every article, or link to a glossary of terms that will allow the reader to educate themselves, the WHO said.  

Use clear language

The WHO urged journalists to use clear language as most readers are not familiar with scientific language. Some terms can be defined within the article but make an effort to frame explanations in simplified terms so that readers across all levels of comprehension will understand, it said.  

Explain the stage

Some research may show exciting results based only on a preliminary set of data, but journalists need to check whether a report has been peer-reviewed and make sure in which stage it is in.

Report the numbers

As there are dozens of vaccines in various stages of development at any given time, it's important to specify the size, numbers tested, and time period of the trial at the time of reporting on a vaccine.

Disclose the side effects

No vaccine in history has progressed through clinical trials and pre-approval as fast as the recent COVID-19 vaccines. Journalists need to clearly state the possible side effects of any given vaccine as it will help inform the public and ease their reservations as will reporting on any side effects experienced by participants in a vaccine trial.

Use appropriate imagery

Choice of illustration in articles about vaccines is important. Vaccines are not something to fear, so avoid such visuals as crying babies, anxious-looking patients and oversized needles. Ensure that illustrations represent all readers by showing a range of people working on, administering and receiving vaccines, the agency urged journalists.

Don't forget demographics

Not every vaccine will be equally effective across all populations. When reporting on the efficacy of a vaccine in clinical trials, journalists need to mention the demographics of the participants in the trial.  

Remind about the benefits of vaccines

Reporting on potentially effective COVID-19 vaccines is vital for informing those who already plan to be vaccinated, but with misinformation rife during the pandemic, don't forget to inform readers of the importance of all vaccines.  

Tackle vaccine hesitancy by reporting facts and figures on vaccine efficacy in ending epidemics throughout history, the WHO said.

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