When facts are not enough: Insights from COVID-19 to build trust in science 

On October 12th, over one hundred attendees tuned in on Zoom to a Global Media Dialogue with Dr. Heidi Larson, the author of Stuck: How Vaccine Rumors Start – and Why They Don’t Go Away. Dr. Larson is also the founder of the Vaccine Confidence Project based in the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and the Global Listening Project. The media dialogue was the second in a partnership series with the Sabin Vaccine Institute, who supports Internews and journalists to communicate effectively about vaccination across the globe. 

Journalists from over 30 countries were shown the initial findings of The Vaccine Confidence Project, which has been collecting vaccine confidence index data since 2015, and the Global Listening Project, which mapped and interpreted public sentiments in 71 countries about vaccination. Dr. Larson shared compelling data showing trends from the survey and interviews spanning 150+ countries.  

A global look at trust in vaccines  

Perceptions from respondents was that  no two countries handled COVID-19 in the same way. On average, 54% of those who participated had doubts and reservations at the time of getting vaccinated, 72% felt relieved after getting vaccinated against COVID, and 26% of participants regretted having been vaccinated. Africans generally had the highest amount of doubt regarding the vaccine, but then ultimately showed the highest levels of relief, whereas participants in parts of Asia also had high doubt but ultimately had the highest regret after being vaccinated.  

Trust was also examined across many major media platforms. In Africa, national and local radio and television stations were deemed the most trustworthy, while social media platforms were the least trusted. Dr. Larson emphasizes, Broadcast media came to the top, not print… We really need to capitalize on that and create an environment around social media that mediates and tries to create a protective, safe communication, safe journalism that makes people think twice about what they see on their social media.” 

This Global Media Dialogue, moderated by Stella Murumba (a rumor tracking specialist at Internews), shared insights on how to communicate vaccine science in a way that shows why it matters: helping people make better decisions about their health, informing policy, leaving no one behind. Jatin Gandhi, a  journalist and media trainer based in India, Y’isha Raphael a youth health advocate and communicator), and Esther Nakkaz, a science journalist and founder of the Health Journalist Network in Uganda, HEJNU, led the discussion on how best journalists should listen empathetically to their audiences about their vaccine related concerns whilst also ensuring that they have evidence-based information to make good choices for their health, which includes getting vaccinated against a variety of pathogens. The journalists’ questions indicated huge interest in the role of factchecking, and in the need to address mistrust in social media. In response to their questions, Dr. Larson spoke of the use of fear, anxiety and confusion to engineer disinformation online.  

Cutting through the noise  

“Cutting through the noise” was an overarching theme of the conversationon. Dr. Larson emphasized the need to connect with audiences directly to convey the importance of vaccination and building trust within the community. She urged journalists  to use every opportunity to address what people feel their concerns are. “Listening itself is already an intervention,” she says, “we have been really overwhelmed with how many people said ‘somebody actually cares what we think? We felt like during COVID we had no voice.’” Journalists should make a concerted effort to listen to their audience’s needs, not just put numbers and data in an article or report.  

Nevertheless, while sharing stories is an important part of the picture, journalists must not forget the science, she said. “We need to embed it in values and in things people can relate to,” Dr. Larson said. 

The Global Listen Project is continuing to analyze the findings of its study and will publish in-depth reporting in the coming months. As the report and the conversation showed, the issue of vaccine confidence is complex due to a number of factors – socioeconomic, political, mental health and mis/disinformation –  and journalists are key players in reestablishing trust in communities to increase confidence globally. 

As Dr. Larson writes in her book ‘Stuck’: “Vaccine reluctance and refusal are not issues that can be addressed by merely changing the message or giving ‘more’ or ‘better’ information.” 

“Debunking rumors, one rumor at a time, will not fix the questioning and convictions. It is too late for that,” she adds. “What is needed is a more fundamental change around the fertile ground which is fueling the concerns, rumors, and heated debates.