Vaccines and Local Media, Here and Everywhere

Supporting trusted local media key to overcoming vaccine hesitancy and controlling COVID-19   

By Alex Busansky and Joel Malebranche

Alex Busansky is President of Impact Justice, a national innovation and research center based in Oakland, CA, which works to create a more humane and restorative system of justice in the United States. 

Joel Malebranche is Senior Program Officer for west and central Africa for Internews, a California-based nonprofit that supports independent media in 100 countries around the world.

While the U.S. has managed to vaccinate half of all adults against COVID-19, vaccinations are slowing, running into a wall of vaccine hesitancy and historic barriers to health access. In the East Bay and across California, vaccination rates vary dramatically by zip code. The reasons behind the disparities are as diverse as the communities these postal designations represent.  

Historic barriers to health care and the racial wealth gap have resulted in a racial vaccination gap in Black and Brown communities. General distrust of government has driven vaccine hesitancy, especially in rural areas. Many young people – who fear the virus less than older generations – have indicated in surveys that they don’t plan to get vaccinated.  

One-size-fits-all vaccination messaging campaigns will not address these geographic and culturally specific concerns. Overcoming vaccine skepticism and connecting people to health resources requires a community-by-community approach. 

Congresswoman Barbara Lee is a leader in mobilizing resources for vaccinations in the United States and support for foreign assistance that aids local media to report effectively on vaccines is consistent with her overall vision.

Local media, which already command trust in the communities they serve, are a promising resource that can deliver this lifesaving health information. Roughly 75 percent of Americans trust them, compared to just over half who trust national news. According to Edelman’s Trust Barometer, the valuable information that media have delivered throughout the pandemic thus far drove trust in news sources to an all-time high.  

We know that leveraging local media can work because we’ve seen it work. Take the case of Epicenter-NYC, a local media organization that produces a newsletter widely read by residents in the Jackson Heights neighborhood in Queens, New York. Epicenter-NYC’s staff noticed the vaccinations rates in Queens were lagging, due to access issues and vaccine hesitancy.  

As a local media organization invested in the community, it began providing vaccination sign up information in its newsletter. Within a few weeks, it signed up 4,600 residents for vacations.  

Local media hold promise to boost vaccination rates not only in the U.S. but around the world. This being a global pandemic, no one is protected until everyone around the world is protected.  

In Zimbabwe, for example, research showed that people were more likely to heed public health recommendations when they learned about them through local media. Kubatana, a media organization that reaches audiences over WhatsApp, sent messages encouraging their readers to practice social distancing measures. Researchers from Harvard University found that those who received these messages from Kubatana were 30 percent more likely to adhere to social distancing rules than a control group.  

Local media can also help dispelling local rumors that can start on digital platforms like Facebook. It’s not enough to rely on Facebook and other social media companies to police misinformation themselves. Facebook’s software can track just 40 languages – a drop in the bucket compared to the 7,000 languages and dialects spoken around the world.  

With the help of local journalists or other information purveyors, health providers and humanitarian actors can set up systems to track rumors to monitor information spread on social media or by word-of-mouth. In the Philippines, for example, a newsletter keeps tabs on conversations about COVID-19 in four different languages and quantifies how widely they have been shared. It helps clarify whether a rumor is gaining traction and, if so, where and in what languages to respond. 

Local journalists are a powerful ally in the fight against COVID-19—they already claim a position of trust in communities. But they need our help. Local news outlets are struggling to survive in the United States; saving them will likely require philanthropic investment from foundations and more subscriptions from appreciative readers and listeners.  

More U.S. foreign aid dollars are needed to support local media in low-income countries and train journalists on health reporting.

Bay Area Congresswoman Barbara Lee (D-Oakland) chairs the Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs in the U.S. House and is well-positioned to boost support. Chairwoman Lee is a leader in mobilizing resources for vaccinations in the United States and support for foreign assistance that aids local media to report effectively on vaccines is consistent with her overall vision. 

Ensuring that local media exist in every community – here and around the world – is not simply benevolence. In a global pandemic, no community or country is fully safe until the virus is eliminated everywhere. It’s not just the right and equitable thing to do, it’s the smart thing, too.