Dr. Jaya Shreedhar
Helping Journalists Translate Vaccine Science
Doctor-turned journalist based in Chennai, India
Co-author of “Let’s Talk Vaccines”
Dr. Jaya is both a health and development journalist and medical doctor based in Chennai, India. Experienced in print media, radio, television, and digital media, she specializes in topics like human rights and health, specifically HIV/AIDS and TB. From 2004-2008, Jaya led the Internews Local Voices project in Chennai, an HIV journalism training program which helped journalists understand the science and tell compelling stories to reduce stigma. She is a consultant for international institutions including WHO and UNICEF and teaches public health journalism at the Asian College of Journalism.
Helping Journalists Translate Vaccine Science
– November 18th, 2021
Vaccines have become a topic of household conversation.
Far too common though, these conversations are ripe with mis/disinformation and often revolve around opinions instead of actual science. In an environment where rumors can easily become strongly held opinions, journalists are needed to translate vaccine science in ways that answer their questions and addresses their doubts.
Our guest this month is Dr. Jaya Shreedhar, a doctor-turned journalist based in Chennai, India, and co-author of “Let’s Talk Vaccines”, an online course that helps journalists navigate ongoing developments in the vaccine story and helps to translate science into compelling journalism. She will be interviewed by Jeanne Bourgault, Internews’s CEO.
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Narrator: You’re listening to Turn the Mic Around with Internews.
Jeanne Bourgault: Good afternoon, everyone. Good afternoon and welcome to Turn the Mic Around. This is Internews’ monthly conversation where we interview journalists working all around the world, really tackling some of the most vexing problems facing our world. My name is Jeannie Bourgault, and I’m the president of Internews. We are an international nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting independent media in 100 countries around the world.
I am thrilled today to be joined by Dr. Jaya Shreedhar. Jaya is a health journalist based in Chennai, India. And she’s also the co-author of the online course Let’s Talk Vaccines. So, Jaya, welcome today and welcome to this conversation. I want to start out going a little bit personal. You’ve been a health journalist for a very long time; you’ve covered a lot of the major health epidemics in the past years. Tell us a little bit about your personal journey. And also tell us how covering the pandemic is different from other health crises that you’ve covered in your amazing, amazing career.
Jaya Shreedhar: Thanks, Jeanne. It’s great to be here and to be part of this conversation. I was just thinking a bit about this question and most of my past experiences has been covering the HIV/AIDS epidemic, all those many years ago, and I’ve continued to follow the coverage since. And I think what the coverage of HIV really did to journalists around the world, was to show us what a wide canvas reporting on public health really offered to us.
So, it wasn’t just about interviewing patients and hospitals, or speaking to doctors and health workers. But it was addressing the politics of it, addressing discrimination; the conversation moved very quickly to public health, governance and human rights. And I think that human rights and governance continued to be the major determinants of how health is understood, how it’s researched, how that shapes policies, and how it’s actually delivered on the ground. So, who gets included in the conversation and who gets left out of it is determined by how journalists are able to understand health and human rights and governance and report on it.
So, I think that was an absolutely wonderful journey to be part of the huge community of journalists that covered the HIV epidemic. But what I find a bit different about COVID-19 is just like the human faces and marginalized communities came to the fore and changed the face of health reporting all those decades ago, today, it’s science that’s at the forefront. So, we see rapidly evolving science and a lot of terminologies and the innards of the research world laid out on the table for people to scramble to understand, and journalists are scrambling along with the public to make sense of the science and interpret it in terms that are relatable and understandable and in an accurate fashion for audiences. And that’s where I think that this pandemic is so different for health journalism,
JB: I guess I too feel like a scientist through this pandemic. How much I’m consuming the news about it and trying to understand myself, because it does affect every one of us in the world as well. So that’s an interesting insight. We will be opening up to questions to the audience, but I have a few more that I want to get on with Jaya.
I think that we’re arguably all a little bit disappointed about how the media has covered vaccines, and not necessarily covered vaccines, but the fact that the coverage of vaccines hasn’t resulted in more vaccine uptake. And so, I just love to hear your thoughts on that. Is there something that journalists could do more broadly about the coverage of vaccines that you think can make a difference?
JS: I think we all sort of follow the lesson that that information can save lives and information can make a difference. But I think we’re finding out many new things in this pandemic that we didn’t know before. And I think one of those is explaining the science of it very clearly, that a lot of attention has to go to understanding and interpreting the science properly.
The second thing is dealing with all of those underpinnings of what people believe in. So, their cultural beliefs for one, their religious beliefs for one, their political persuasions for another. And I think a lot of skepticism…the more educated you are, the more likely you are to question what goes on around you. And we find like, let’s say in a country like India, it’s the more literate states that are questioning the efficacy of vaccines or questioning the effectiveness of vaccines. Whereas there’s a greater uptake of vaccines in in the states of North India where literacy levels are much lower. And there’s a greater trust in the healthcare system of what doctors can do for you. So, it’s an interesting mix of things and journalists have to grapple with what the local realities are on the ground and respond to them, which means much more homework. And it’s not just batting out the same cookie cutter set of information, responses that the government gives you, or that you pick up from the Western press, or from journalists or elsewhere.
So I think that what journalists can do to better their coverage of vaccines, is to go out into the field, which has been a challenge thus far also because of lockdowns, but to do it safely taking personal safety precautions, and go and find out what’s troubling people, and why they are refusing vaccines, or why some people are accepting vaccines and amplified with positive stories. So that serves as a nudge for more people to develop confidence in vaccines.
JB: And even diving a little bit deeper on this reluctance factor. And I think the complications of covering reluctance and making sure that you’re giving voice to reluctance, balanced with the science of what you’re trying to do, as well as maybe go a little bit deeper onto that directly addressing that reluctance and the journalists’ role, again, not as advocates but in covering this phenomena. I’m curious to hear more on that.
JS: There’s lots of evidence to show that when there’s consensual trust in science, across societies, like in a country, if the overall tempo of the public, the ambience, so to speak, is to understand and trust science and trust doctors, and they’re able to have that kind of confidence, then there’s greater vaccine uptake. There’s enough evidence to show that. But within a country that can be varying levels of trust and science and that lowers the overall vaccine uptake. So when, when one asks oneself, so what can journalists do in a situation like that? I think it’s the key role of the journalist, as far as vaccine hesitancy is concerned, is really to build trust in science. And that’s a long journey. I think we’re just on the first leg of that journey, as we try to build trust in science ourselves. Because we can’t forget that there’s a huge section of the media that doesn’t follow the science at all. They need training, they need access to experts, and they need some support. They need help from maybe senior journalists or communicators, to be able to interpret the complex data that’s emerging from the science of the pandemic better for the readers.
So, building trust in science, building trust in the way science works, and being able to understand that science doesn’t have all the answers for you at the end of the day, immediately, but it can offer you even solutions that can tide you over the present patch, till a better solution comes along. I think that kind of patience has to be cultivated in science and scientists and the way scientists work as well.
So, lots of challenges for journalists, and I absolutely love it. Because every time there’s a challenge, you learn so many new things, there’s new ways of working with other journalists learning from them, developing new training curricula. The mentoring process is different. The kinds of people you meet are different. I really think it’s time for journalists to interact with a whole new set of researchers and those are the behavioral science experts, whose voices haven’t been heard as much as we would we might have liked in this conversation, till vaccine hesitancy is acknowledged globally as a major, major challenge to public health
JB: Of course. To the audience: Again, I’m going to open up in just a minute, so please leave any questions you might have for Jaya in the chat, but just wanted to go on to one of the issues that has really been very challenging in the pandemic, as well as other more recent epidemics, is the misinformation and disinformation plaguing so many parts of our communication space. But certainly, when it comes to the pandemic, and what can journalists do to, at a minimum, make sure they’re not adding to the mis- and disinformation, but potentially even like, finding ways to shift the conversation a little bit. If you can talk about that a little bit, that’d be great.
JS: Do the homework. Absolutely. If we’ve developed such fine commentators, you know, on the politics of things, on climate change. The health journalists have to bone up on the information. They have to get down and sweat it out and learn the science. And I think one of the most important ways to do that is to also observe scientists at work. It’s important for the journalist not just to, you know, dash in and out of the hospital and interview a doctor and expect the doctor to explain everything to them.
But I think it’s time to get into the trenches and go through scientifically, you know, the peer reviewed scientific journals to understand what that jargon means; to sit and get friendly with researchers, get to know their problems firsthand. So that there’s a greater empathy for the way research is done, the way it’s presented, and there’s a better ability to judge the quality of research. I think that there’s no getting away from it. There’s no shortcuts at all.
But if that kind of investment is made, the quality of science commentary in the mainstream media can improve greatly. And I think that that’s what can really help the public develop a better scientific understanding of how science works. And it will build trust. Because if you know that science is not infallible and that’s how it works, there’s a greater chance that you will develop trust. This might sound counterintuitive, but it makes for greater transparency.
JB: Yeah, I think it’s the transparency that builds the trust. And there’s a question in the chat that’s specifically related to this – the point that you made about the lower uptake of vaccines in more literate states. Do you think that has to do with the access to social media and the concurrent sort of misinformation that comes along with it? Or what do you attribute that to? What are some of the factors?
JS: I think the more literate states and the lower vaccine uptake could be explained by insufficient understanding of the ways vaccine science has been reported by the media. So, when you hear about adverse events following vaccination, and the journalist just says that maybe a couple of people died of a stroke or blood clots following vaccination with a particular vaccine, then that’s going to sort of make them pull back. And that’s the news they read, and they’re not going to go beyond it. They’re not going to question it. They’re not going to look at the numbers. So, I think it falls on the journalists to sort of lead them through understanding how frequent adverse events happen after vaccination with a certain company’s vaccine, and how to interpret it in the light of the other risks you face in your day to day life. I mean, you have to give some additional information to help them relate it and to make an informed choice. And that’s the bit that’s missing. So, I think it’s insufficient information. That’s part of the problem.
JB: And this again, related. We are so focused on the mis- and dis- information…from our colleague with Farm Radio, which we love. Are there specific storytelling skills that the journalist can use with different techniques in the way they tell a story to help in this? Not just relying on the science and that transparency piece, but also just the nature of the storytelling itself to help combat and the mis- and dis- information?
JS: Oh, I think that’s the other part of the COVID-19 pandemic story that’s not gotten that much of media space. And that is really telling the story of families and individuals have suffered through the pandemic. I think we’ve seen some stories that sort of capture it at a population level. Yes, we’ve seen great stories on the on the migration out, you know, reverse migration of people going back to their villages, after the lockdowns in India, for instance. So, you’ve got like, some stories there.
But after that, the human face of the COVID-19 pandemic, I think it’s sort of been subsumed in the data dashboards that we’re seeing everywhere. And I just want to make a comment about the data dashboards. They incomplete. You know, they they’re not the full picture. But what they do is something very dangerous – they give you an illusion of control that you know exactly what’s going on – that this country is worse affected and this one is doing better. When actually the data aren’t complete enough for you to make those comparisons. But we find ourselves doing stories on those things all the time. So sometimes I wonder – are we are we diverting focus from some more important issues that people ought to be knowing such as home-based care, for instance?
JB: All of us citizen scientists are also contributing that way. Exactly.
JS: Absolutely. But, but one more reference to the dashboards that I would like to make is the Johns Hopkins recent dashboard on the sources of information that people trust. And they find one of the studies showed that there is far less trust in the media and more trust in scientists. And what we really need to do to correct that is to bring more scientists into the public domain through journalists. I think the voices of the researchers and scientists on the frontlines of finding solutions to the pandemic really needs to be captured far better by journalists than we have been doing. And I think that that’s an excellent way forward to build trust in vaccines.
JB: And we’re just going to keep going on the mis- and dis-information. Here’s a question about what do we do about people who are just completely indifferent to evidence-based information in science, they’re just committed to their subjective view of reality, no matter how much experts tried to educate them. Is all hope lost there, or what have you seen that could work?
JS: Yeah, I wish I knew the answer to that one. This is why I’m waiting to see what the behavioral scientists have to say about this. Because obviously, there’s no point, you know, solving this with the linear logic of high-quality evidence from science; that’s not cutting it, right? So, we have to deal with some of the other things that are going on in the lives of these people to try and address those things. Is it political compulsions that are making them point blank refuse vaccines?
I think if one keeps peppering the environment of their lives with sufficient information that’s evidence based, that’s correct, that’s accurate, and also persuasive. And here’s where the leadership really needs to step up to the plate. We need all the social influencers out there to make a difference; show them getting the shots coming away with smiling faces.
We’ve had pediatricians in India taking the shot and then going on a bicycle to show that they’re fine after the vaccine – you should really sort of go ahead and take it and this is how it’s going to help your family. So, we need a lot of trusted faces out there and powerful social influencers to turn the tide, I think if one wants to appeal to the emotional side of things.
But I wish we could take a leaf or two out of the world of the marketing folks. Do they really switch behaviors to make people just accept several things that they don’t need in their lives? Just like that. We need more scholarship around that.
JB: I just want to go to the experience in India itself. This is a question from me. Because I know that India has gone from being a giant success story to a really dire situation and coming back from that. And part of it feels like it was a little bit about the government communications as well. So, the public information, and journalists’ coverage, but more – what’s the role of governments and public health officials in this, tackling the vaccine question, but more broadly, when it comes to health, where what are some of the biggest stumbles that can happen from a public health or a government official?
JS: I think transparency Jeanne, really, I think, transparent, periodic, regular communication as often as it’s needed, particularly when there’s a crisis on the ground, like an adverse event, which may not be an adverse event at all. But that’s when the officials really need to be available to the journalist to cut through the misinformation and disinformation and clarify things.
I think the second thing is the messaging around vaccines has to be very clearly formulated by health communications experts, and then shared with the journalists and just not leave it to the politicians or to the media to do that themselves. Because this is a highly specialized field. And those messages are very carefully crafted.
I think the third thing is: be open about the data and about the lack of data. That’s key.
And I think the fourth very important thing is that journalists should be the frontline informants for what’s really going on out in the field, where the government doesn’t have its eyes and ears. And we really need to keep the information flowing back to the policymakers and the implementers about who needs what, where. And I think that that’s really key. What are people thinking? What are people feeling? You know, what are the barriers they are facing? And we’ve not really seen enough of that kind of a critical reporting, at least not in India.
JB: An interesting question here, that’s comparing the coverage of the pandemic to what happened just recently at COP26 in Glasgow, and a lot of the journalists were saying to cover climate, the summit, that you needed more stories, human stories that helped convince people that climate change is real and give a sense of personal agency again. So how do you compare climate coverage and pandemic journalism coverage?
JS: I think climate change coverage has raced far ahead. They’ve been at this game for longer than we have. We’re relatively new to the science of the pandemic game. We just barely two years old into this kind of science dominating the coverage of health issue. So, I think we have a lot to learn from them. And thankfully, or unfortunately, we have something called One Health where I think that that’s a great stage for osmosis because the division between the two – between climate change and health is so porous, it’s so fragile and one is going to influence the other. So, I think climate change journalists need to show us, give us some pointers, and we can teach them some stuff as well, for the overall benefit of better health and climate change commentary on the whole.
JB: Related to that, and we are getting close to the time, I want to be careful about the time. But looking ahead, what do you think journalists have learned from COVID-19 that will help us as we think about coverage of what will be the inevitable next pandemic? What might be different? Or what could be something that we’ll take forward as journalists?
JS: I think we have to be prepared to cover the next pandemic before it arrives. Exactly. That’s absolutely right. And for that, I think it starts with creating a network of contacts everywhere, those of us who want to be on the trail of the next pandemic, have to know who to reach out to. We need to follow the scientific literature that’s published around the subject and get familiar with that. And follow government policy.
There’s a huge amount of scholarship that’s being generated around pandemic preparedness thanks to the present pandemic. So, there’s a whole new peer reviewed journal that’s out there on infodemiology, which is tracing the flow, the origin and source and flow of information, just like they track neural networks in the brain. So, there’s an increasing level of sophistication in the kind of thinking that’s being applied to pandemic preparedness and tracking; the mis-infodemic that is increasingly being seen to accompany these health issues. Anyone with digital access is a journalist these days. They have freedom to comment, to upload their photographs, their codes, their comments, feelings, it’s all out there. And I think increasingly, the role of the health journalist goes beyond that of a storyteller to that of a navigator who is going to help audiences steer away from the shallow waters of mis- and disinformation towards safer waters, where you’re better equipped to make health choices moving forward,
JB: Given this pandemic…a final question here…is reaching every nook and cranny of the world. And I know that you’ve put a lot of effort in trying to make sure that journalists everywhere are able to cover the vaccine issue more effectively. And so the Let’s Talk Vaccines online workshop…can you tell us just a little bit about that as our as our final closing statements.
JS: Absolutely. That was an absolutely delightful project to work on with a talented team of professionals here within Internews. And the course covers…it’s a broad sort of a course, which covers, not just the science. It equips journalists not just to report on the science of vaccines, but also with how they made, how they’re distributed, and what are the issues with the uptake. And it also gives journalists a list of sources and excellent kinds of reporting by other journalists.
We all learn from the way the other health journalists report; we learn from each other’s stories. So, you have a sources chapter as well. It’s a self-paced course. You can learn it on your own time, at your own pace. And there’s quiz questions. It’s fun, it’s engaging, and it’s informative. But what we’ve tried to do is not just throw information at our colleagues out there; we’ve sort of made it as conversational as possible. So, you can have fun. It’s like talking to a senior mentor in your own newsroom. And I think that that’s why it’s fun to take that course.
JB: And in a number of languages soon, right? French, Spanish?
JS: That’s right. It’s being translated currently into Arabic, with the support of the WHO, Eastern Mediterranean regional office, and it will be available to journalists who report in Arabic. And along with the Sabin Institute, there’s a wonderful collaboration that’s ongoing now where the courses being translated into French. And it’s not just these translations that are going to be made available online. There’s also going to be regional media dialogues around the content in these courses, engaging with local experts, as well as in person contact interactions with the mentors and the other authors of the course. So, we are looking forward to learning from the community of journalists who are going to be engaging with us on this course,
JB: Super. And we’ll put a link in the chat everyone if you want to share that link broadly. Okay, Jaya, thank you so much. I am going to take from you that storytellers need to become more navigators as we move forward. And I think that’s so very true. And I really love that line. Thank you so much. I know it’s late there, but we really appreciate you joining us today for this month’s version of Turn the Mic Around.
If you want to learn more about Internews, please visit our website internews.org. Please follow us on social media. And also if you’re inspired, go ahead and hit that donate button because it’s your support that makes these types of programs possible. So really appreciate seeing everyone today. Really appreciate you, Jaya, and we’ll see you again next month. Thank you everyone.
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