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Irresponsible headlines

/ 04:03 AM March 29, 2021

The medical community is dealing with the double burden of the COVID-19 pandemic as well as the pandemic of misinformation that surrounds the nature of the virus and the vaccines. For us in the Philippines, we have also been dealing with the blows dealt to our vaccine confidence by the Dengvaxia crisis of years past, as this column has lamented. The struggle to encourage standard health practices and vaccination has felt like an uphill battle from the very start of the pandemic, as we are struggling against several factors: poor reading comprehension; a tendency to read headlines without reading articles, either out of carelessness or out of poor access to internet data; confusing messages from the media and even from our own health agencies; and the barrage of fake news and texts that get spread over Viber, social networks, and SMS. To these challenges to public health, we now must add careless journalism about COVID-19 vaccines. For instance, a headline made by a local news outlet this week read “Midwife succumbs to COVID-19 after receiving vaccine.” The statement, strictly speaking, is factual: a patient tested positive for the coronavirus and later died several days after receiving the first vaccine dose. However, in the context of our health situation and the impact that even small misconceptions can have on public safety, it is irresponsible not to recognize that Filipinos reading such headlines are not often equipped to distinguish temporal relationships from causal ones. A death after receiving the COVID-19 vaccine was not necessarily caused by the latter; this much ought to be clear. But it isn’t—not to everyone, and certainly not to the large majority who read and share such headlines without probing further. Because of a variety of factors, some of which have been stated above, a lay person’s takeaway from such a headline could easily be that death is a real and present danger of receiving the coronavirus vaccine.

The facts are these: That vaccines do not cause coronavirus infection, and that after the first dose, it can take weeks before the patient is able to mount partial protection; even after the second dose, it takes time for vaccine protection to be maximized. Moreover, the vaccines do not give a 100-percent guarantee against COVID infection, but they do work to prevent critical illness from the virus and hospitalization. All of this might be too much to fit in a headline. But to write headlines that might even remotely suggest that vaccines do not work, or might lead to death, is a terrible disservice to Filipinos.

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Thankfully, I cannot now find the original headline in the news outlet’s website, and search results now yield “Midwife given first vaccine jab but later dies from COVID-19.” The same outlet also released an article later in the day describing how the Department of Health has no reason to suspect that the tragic death arose from the vaccination. Still, the damage is done, yet one more thing contributing to the erosion of vaccine confidence. “‘Di ba may namatay na sa vaccine?” I overhear one day at the convenience store. “Baka sa vaccine pa ako mamatay, hindi sa COVID,” someone says jokingly on my social media timeline. I saw someone share a similar article about a death after COVID-19 vaccination with the caption “No thanks, I’m good.”

Similar headlines abound. From one paper: “Vaccinated midwife dies of COVID-19,” not bothering with the fact that with our two available brands, no one is fully vaccinated until the end of the second dose. Other local headlines: “2 Bacolod hospital nurses vaccinated with Sinovac test positive for COVID-19.” “15 Pasay frontliners positive for COVID-19 after Sinovac jab.” Such headlines are disingenuous, even sly, and are not educational. They do not contribute more information about vaccine safety or lack thereof. They do not help lay Filipinos in making informed decisions, and instead have the potential to push audiences in the opposite direction.

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As a nonjournalist, I cannot possibly dictate how such headlines should be written so that they may be succinct but not misleading. However, as a health professional, and as one of many in the field struggling to educate friends, families, and communities about COVID-19 vaccines, I can testify to how damaging such wording can be. The World Health Organization, in December 2020, released tips for professional reporting on COVID-19 vaccines, underlining how journalists play a vital role in explaining science to the masses. In a situation as precarious as ours, I hope our journalists can exercise more caution, and recognize the weight of their power and responsibility.

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TAGS: Hints and Symbols, irresponsible headlines, Kay Rivera
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