Since December, the pandemic news cycle has revolved around one thing: vaccines. Everyone wants to know how many shots are available, how the shots will be distributed, and—most importantly—when it will be their turn to get the inoculation.
As Bloomberg reporter Drew Armstrong puts it: “Everybody in the country has been watching this same TV show for the last year.” Our audiences know all the major characters, but they’re still riveted to every new plot twist. This ongoing interest allows science writers to get specific in our coverage of the vaccine rollout—but we still need to keep reminding readers of the basics, such as why public health experts consider the vaccines safe and what side effects patients may expect.
Here are some tips to keep in mind and resources to bookmark, for both veteran science writers and journalists just now wading into the vaccine beat.
- Dedicate time to reading vaccine news and scientific developments. André Biernath, a science journalist at BBC Brazil, spends one to two hours each day reading and learning about vaccines. He checks vaccine trackers such as those hosted by Biorender and the Regulatory Affairs Professionals Society, and reads new papers in JAMA, The Lancet, and other highly regarded publications, as well as looking at official news releases from Brazil’s federal and state governments. The Atlantic’s Sarah Zhang recommends reading specialized publications, such as STAT and Chemical & Engineering News. Many journalists also use Twitter to keep up with scientific developments and commentary (more on that in the resources section below).
- Put your numbers in context. When explaining the results of a vaccine trial or discussing dose administration numbers, pick your figures carefully and compare them to something a reader will understand. The best comparison is usually a human one: What does the number mean for an individual person and their community? One example that freelance journalist Maryn McKenna offers: If you’re saying that Operation Warp Speed has contracted 185 million vaccine doses, remind readers that there are about 255 million adults over 18 in the U.S., and the current vaccines on the market require two doses each. Priscila Pacheco, a reporter at São Paulo–based Aos Fatos, and STAT’s Nicholas St. Fleur both also suggest asking experts to explain the numbers for you—and using their insights as additional context.
- Partner with graphic designers to show how vaccines work. As hard as a science writer might work to explain a number, a chart may be more instructive—especially for readers who prefer a visual-learning option. In Brazil, when authorities seemingly contradicted themselves by announcing the Sinovac vaccine had a 50.4 percent efficacy rate (after touting higher numbers), Biernath worked with designers at BBC Brazil to build charts explaining precisely how this vaccine works and what that 50.4 percent value means for readers.
- Get specific about immunity. One challenge of explaining how vaccines work, Zhang says, is conveying the different levels of immunity that they provide. “Biologically, immunity is not all or nothing,” she explains. Tell your readers what it means to be protected from symptoms, from infection, from transmission, from mild versus severe illness, from one variant more than another. This piece by STAT’s Helen Branswell does a good job of explaining the distinctions and outlining the questions scientists will ask of COVID-19 vaccines in the months to come.
- Put COVID-19 vaccines in the context of others. “Before you think about the specific vaccine for COVID-19, look at the performance of [other vaccines] around the world,” says Pacheco. While some COVID-19 vaccines, particularly those that use mRNA, may seem new and exciting to readers, they build on decades of research; explaining this history and how vaccines work in general can help readers understand our current situation. Zhang recommends these two Chemical & Engineering News pieces, which “do a spectacular job of chronicling the ups and downs of the new vaccine technologies we’re seeing.”
- If you’re building a COVID vaccine dashboard, talk to the people behind the numbers. Drew Armstrong, senior health care editor behind Bloomberg’s Vaccine Tracker, recommends “having a lot of conversations” before publishing a running tally of vaccine statistics. “Data don’t always mean what they seem to mean,” he says. His team talked to the CDC and states to ensure that they were on the same page about definitions and methodologies. Armstrong also talked to staffers at the COVID Tracking Project, which he profiled in November, so that Bloomberg could build on existing knowledge about maintaining national COVID-19 datasets.
- Consider the logistics. “Vaccination is still a health story and a science story, but it’s also a logistics story and an engineering story,” says McKenna. Once a vaccine completes clinical testing and gets Emergency Use Authorization, its success falls less on doctors and more on IT directors and local politicians. Who manages the appointment booking system? Who sets up the mass vaccination site at a local church? Who convinces people to actually go to that vaccination site? Who drives seniors to their appointments? Who decides how to distribute leftover doses at the end of the day? All of these stakeholders are your sources, just as important to the vaccination story as a hospital director or epidemiologist.
- Assign responsibility precisely. Since everyone is watching the vaccine rollout, Armstrong says, journalists can “assume that there’s a deep interest in real and specific problems.” In other words: dig into the details. When you talk to a politician or public health official in your region, tell them exactly what the gap is in your knowledge, and demand that they give you specific answers. Such reporting can allow reporters to identify root problems rather than, say, allowing the governor of New York and the mayor of New York City to blame each other when doses in the city run out. “For example, a hospital throws away expiring doses,” Zhang says. “The immediate actor here is the hospital, but the root problem might be the state government failing to give hospitals the ability to have flexibility beyond the priority groups.”
- Get familiar with anti-vaccine dog whistles. Tara Haelle, an expert on vaccine science and history, recommends that journalists read review papers on the anti-vaccine movement in order to learn about the language of that community. A seemingly innocuous statement such as, “I’m not anti-vaccine, I’m just pro-safety,” she says, may signal mistrust of vaccines to those who are already hesitant. Haelle elaborates on this advice—and provides an example of how a well-meaning journalist may sow hesitancy—in a blog post for the Association of Health Care Journalists.
- Remember that some vaccine mistrust is reasonable. Fleur and McKenna note that some groups that have been hit hardest by COVID-19, such as racial minorities and low-income communities, are also likely to have bad experiences with the U.S. medical system—in many cases, bad experiences that took place during the pandemic itself. “If you’re going to bring up the statistics [on hesitancy], then make sure your next sentence brings up the history,” St. Fleur says. This history includes the oft-cited Tuskegee Syphilis Study, yes, but it also includes the lives of people in the U.S. who have been unable to access the testing and treatment they needed in the past year due to racism that is still systemic in the healthcare system. Put this context in your reporting, and make it clear that this form of hesitancy is reasonable. Such an acknowledgement can create a space where mistrust can be honestly addressed.
- Be candid about side effects. The data have shown that both Pfizer’s and Moderna’s vaccines come with some expected side effects such as pain at the injection site and mild fever, especially after the second dose. We need to be honest about these effects, McKenna says: first, so that patients can be prepared for the experience, and second, because, “if we tell the truth upfront about something that ought to be relatively minor, we can take away its power to be blown up into something bigger.”
- Don’t sensationalize rare adverse events. While some mild side effects are quite common for COVID-19 vaccines, more severe side effects are not. The CDC reports about two cases of anaphylaxis per one million administered doses of the Moderna vaccine, and six cases per one million Pfizer doses. When educating readers about these adverse reactions, don’t get sensational—especially in your headlines or social media posts. Several of the journalists I interviewed criticized coverage of deaths in Norwegian elderly patients which occurred after vaccinations but were not necessarily the result of vaccinations. Writers: Whenever possible, ask to see your piece’s headline before it is published—and work with your editors to ensure it reflects the appropriate nuance.
- Make sure you have the right source for your story. Though many of us work on deadlines and can’t screen ten sources for a single piece, it is still important to ensure your source can provide correct, precise context. “If you’re writing on the COVID-19 vaccine,” Haelle says, “don’t find an expert on the measles vaccine.” Even if you can’t find an expert specifically on COVID-19, look for someone who can speak to a similar virus, such as other human coronaviruses or influenza. Pacheco adds that a diversity of expertise is key: “Talk to experts who have different skills, for you to understand the complexity of the subject,” so that you can pull together everything the reader needs to get a clear picture.
- Shine a spotlight on today’s problems. Many of the issues that plagued other aspects of the U.S.’s COVID-19 response—underfunded public health departments, political polarization, spotty data collection—are now plaguing the country’s vaccine rollout.If some major changes aren’t made, vaccine distribution for the general public later in 2021 will be even worse than the current effort to inoculate vulnerable populations. “We should make sure our reporting shows what is going wrong right now,” St. Fleur says, “so that when the larger rollout happens, those mistakes are patched.” St. Fleur recommends using social media to cultivate networks of sources that include regular Americans just trying to get vaccinated, in addition to experts. Sources found on Twitter drove his reporting for a recent STAT story that illuminates the challenge of navigating public health websites.
- Stay calm and keep your work in perspective. Just as vaccination—and the COVID-19 pandemic at large—is a deeply personal topic for many readers, it is a personal topic for many writers. But as communicators of science and health knowledge, we must remember the broader purpose of our work. We can’t let our own emotions drive our reporting. “The facts can be scary and dramatic enough—you don’t need to do more than that,” Armstrong says. Biernath echoes that sentiment: “Breathe deeply, before you write something that could have a huge impact on public health.”
More Resources for Covering COVID-19 Vaccines
- The CDC’s Vaccination Tracker: This dashboard, run by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is the most authoritative source for vaccination data in the U.S. The tracker was published in late December; after a few weeks of somewhat-sporadic updates, it is now updated daily with vaccine distribution and administration counts for every U.S. state and territory. (These data tend to lag actual vaccine administrations by a couple of days, though.)
- Bloomberg’s COVID-19 Vaccine Tracker: While many news organizations and research institutions are now providing vaccine dashboards, Bloomberg’s may be the most comprehensive. The tracker reports a variety of vaccine administration metrics for both countries and U.S. states, along with time series going back to December 18. The tracker includes information on vaccine development stages and contracts as well. It’s updated daily by a huge team of reporters, including Drew Armstrong (quoted above), who also started a liveblog for methodology and analysis updates.
- Vaccination Data Annotations by the COVID-19 Data Dispatch: For my publication, a weekly newsletter and resource site on pandemic data, I am maintaining a running set of annotations on vaccine data sources. The annotations include sources for the U.S. as a whole and individual states. For each source, I report the metrics that are available, update schedules, demographics, and more. I update these annotations every week.
- Our World in Data’s COVID-19 Vaccinations Tracker: The open-source repository Our World in Data has been a reliable source of global pandemic data since last winter, primarily compiling figures from national public health agencies and other public sources. As of January 28, this dataset includes vaccination figures for over 20 countries with time series going back to December 16. You can download the full dataset and read methodology information on GitHub.
- Biorender’s COVID-19 Vaccine & Therapeutics Tracker: André Biernath recommends this dashboard by Biorender (a program for making scientific figures), which is tracking the development of new COVID-19 vaccines and therapeutic drugs. The tracker includes top-line counts of how many products are in human trials, a live feed of recent updates, and detailed information on each vaccine and drug candidate.
- COVID-19 Vaccination Race and Ethnicity Data Availability by the COVID Tracking Project: The COVID Tracking Project at The Atlantic (for which I’m a volunteer) is not tracking vaccinations, but several of my colleagues there have compiled a detailed annotation set on state demographic data. The annotations focus on race and ethnicity, a crucial area of data collection as many leaders pledge to address the pandemic’s disparities by prioritizing vaccination for hard-hit communities. More states have started reporting these data since Alice Goldfarb and Kara Schechtman published this article (on January 15), but the data so far show vaccinations are continuing to perpetuate disparities, not addressing them.
- CDC Contacts for IIS Immunization Records: One reason why vaccination data in the U.S. are so scattered is that, historically, every state has run its own immunization information system (or IIS) with little federal coordination. These systems are essentially anonymized databases that keep track of all vaccine doses administered in a particular area (mostly states, but also a few larger cities like New York and Philadelphia). Local journalists: Get in touch with the IT experts behind your area’s IIS, if you haven’t already.
- KFF COVID-19 Vaccine Monitor: This dashboard from the Kaiser Family Foundation provides data from an ongoing survey project to track how Americans respond to COVID-19 vaccines. You can find recent information on vaccine hesitancy (and the motivations for this hesitancy) on a variety of demographic populations, as well as data on how Americans answered more specific questions such as, “Do you feel you have enough information about when and where to get a COVID-19 vaccine?”
- KFF State COVID-19 Vaccine Priority Populations: KFF researchers have compiled a database including Phase 1A, 1B, and 1C vaccine priority groups for every state. The database may be filtered by state or by phase, and is regularly updated.
- The COVID-19 Vaccine Communication Handbook: SciBeh, a group of scientists and volunteers committed to rethinking knowledge management in crises, has put together a guide for talking about COVID-19 vaccines. The guide includes summaries (and links to more detailed pages) on how the COVID-19 vaccines work, different strategies for talking to people who might be hesitant, and protecting against misinformation.
- Vaccine Education Toolkit from the National Association of Broadcasters: This toolkit is geared towards TV and radio journalists, but it’s free for anyone to use. The toolkit includes insights from NAB surveys, multimedia footage that journalists can use in their coverage, a database of experts who are available for interviews, and more.
- New England Journal of Medicine’s COVID-19 Vaccine FAQ: Another useful source for expert quotes and reliable information is the New England Journal of Medicine—one of the world’s most highly regarded medical journals. In addition to regular publications on COVID-19 vaccines, the journal’s website hosts a Q&A with Harvard Medical School professor Paul Sax on the science behind these vaccines and their current impacts for different potential patients.
- SciLine: If you’re a reporter on the COVID-19 beat who hasn’t yet heard of SciLine, now is the perfect time to familiarize yourself with their services. Run by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, SciLine connects journalists with scientific experts who can provide context for their stories. During the pandemic, SciLine has also hosted regular COVID-19 webinars and compiled quotations from experts, which journalists are welcome to use in their reporting.
- Voices for Vaccines Toolkits: Tara Haelle recommends the parent advocacy organization Voices for Vaccines as a useful resource for learning about vaccination more broadly, beyond COVID-19-specific questions. The organization’s tools include manuals on avoiding false balance, discussing herd immunity, and other topics.
- Association of Health Care Journalists (AHCJ) Blog: The association’s blog posts regular updates on resources and advice for writers covering COVID-19. Haelle has written several posts specifically on vaccine coverage.
- Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas webinar and resources: The Knight Center, at the University of Texas at Austin, held a multilingual webinar on covering COVID-19 vaccines in early February. The Center has made recordings of this event available in English, Spanish, Portuguese, French, and Arabic. See the Knight Center’s website for more multilingual resources for journalists on COVID-19, disinformation, and related topics as well as registration for an open online course on COVID-19 vaccines taught by Maryn McKenna.
- Twitter Lists: Many journalists use Twitter to stay on top of scientific developments and conversations; the platform’s “Lists” feature can help you follow many well-regarded experts in one place. Twitter Lists recommended by the journalists interviewed for this piece (and by me) include Maryn McKenna’s “Outbreaks” list, Josh Marshall’s “Epidemic Science & Health” list, Jeff Jarvis’ “COVID” list, Ellie Murray’s “Coronavirus Experts” list, and Rebecca Glassman’s “Health Departments” list. Nicholas St. Fleur also recommends using the platform’s “Bookmarks” feature to keep track of inspiration for future stories and Direct Messaging possible sources as an informal way to start conversations.
Betsy Ladyzhets is a data journalist and science writer based in Brooklyn, New York. She runs the COVID-19 Data Dispatch, an independent publication providing news and resources on tracking the pandemic. She’s also a research associate at Stacker, a volunteer for the COVID Tracking Project, and a member of the National Association of Science Writers. Follow her on Twitter @betsyladyzhets.