That perspective has strongly informed my much longer career in public relations. Each day I bring a journalist’s perspective to my work. This helps me sift the wheat from the chaff, aiding my clients as well as my acquaintances in the Fourth Estate. Also, I’m far more inclined to defend journalists—especially in today’s unfairly hyper-critical environment, where disparaging legitimate news media has become a disturbing practice—than I am to find fault.
Until something like this comes along….
“This” is a number of local news stories giving voice to the anti-vaccine crowd. A new report from NBC News describes how anti-vaxxers have become media savvy—trotting out “worried” moms with their cherub-faced kids to local news outlets, where they deliver just the right mix of emotional angst and misleading (or flat-out wrong) messages.
This practice is called information laundering—disinformation presented through trusted vehicles, lending an air of legitimacy to falsehoods. In this case, anti-vaxxers are leveraging the trust people have in their local news outlets. A 2018 Poynter Media Trust Survey found better than 70% of Americans trust their local news a “fair” or “great” deal; national outlets fall a full 20 percentage points or more behind.
Tragically, this informational trip to the cleaners is happening while drug companies such as Pfizer and Moderna are bringing forth life-saving vaccines for COVID-19. (Full disclosure: I am a former employee of Pfizer.) The coronavirus pandemic has slain more than 1,650,000 people worldwide, including 308,000 Americans. Millions more face lingering, possibly lifelong complications. These vaccines are critical to stopping this disease and saving lives—provided enough people get the shot.
Anti-vaxxers seem resolved to discourage the turnout; some local news media are unintentionally aiding their quest.
To be fair, I get the challenge local news faces. COVID-19 and the vaccines are huge news stories, dominating network coverage. It’s tough to find a new angle for local audiences. (Case in point: A few weeks ago, a small-town newspaper in the Midwest contacted me to ask if any vaccine work would have happened at a local plant if the company hadn’t closed it. That closure happened nearly a dozen years ago.) Many of my friends in the local news biz feel they can’t turn away from any local link—not when they have newscasts, web pages and column inches to fill.
But while providing a local platform for these fringe voices might seem fair, it risks leading some people to believe these notions might be true. They are not. Vaccines go through a robust development and review process—including the greatly accelerated review for the coronavirus vaccines. Scientists, physicians and regulators know what’s in them, what they do and how they work. As with any medication—or anything you put in your body, including that bag of Doritos you polished off last night—vaccines aren’t risk-free. Side effects are possible, and some patients who received the COVID-19 vaccines reported a few. But the risks are low compared to the benefit of avoiding or diminishing a serious disease.
Thankfully, the local news outlets I work with haven't gone down this disinformation path. I applaud them and encourage them to remain watchful. Truth and accuracy must not be diminished by the desire for balance. All are equal. It’s a tall order, but doable. Perhaps the guiding principle ought to be the same as that of the medical profession: primum non nocere, “first do no harm."