A Covid-19 vaccine script that TV shows use to combat misinformation

On Wednesday, April 7, 2021, stars of NBC’s ‘Today’ will receive Covid-19 vaccines: Hoda Kotb, Craig Melvin, Jenna Bush Hager, Dylan Dreyer, Al Roker, Sheinelle Jones and Savannah Guthrie.

NBC | NBCUniversal | Getty Images

As doctors and health professionals race against Covid-19 vaccine skepticism, some Hollywood producers, writers and showrunners are betting that introducing vaccines into television storylines can help stem widespread misinformation.

Programs on TV networks began incorporating Covid-19 into scripts, including questions about social distance and masking, as the pandemic spread across the US last March. As vaccination efforts ramp up nationwide, shows like ‘This Is Us’ – in which a recurring character received two doses of a vaccine in one episode last month – are integrating vaccines into episodes and the public can expect to see more vaccination plots, Kate Folb says. director of the Hollywood, Health and Society program at the University of Southern California.

Folb is a member of a growing network of entertainment industry experts who work closely with writers and showrunners to accurately represent health and medical information and use entertainment to combat disinformation campaigns and nationwide skepticism fueled by social media.

Using the entertainment industry to transmit public health information is not a new phenomenon. Major networks, including ABC, CBS and NBC in the 1980s, are credited with raising awareness of a nationwide campaign featuring specific drivers by entering posters and references on shows like “Cheers” and “LA Law.”

“People basically believe what they see on TV and it’s imperative that we provide accurate information,” said Neal Baer, ​​a physician and writer and producer on shows like “ER” and “Designated Survivor.”

Vaccine hesitation due to demographics

Writers, health professionals, and lawyers struggle to tell vaccine stories that address a range of opinions, concerns, and points of view, all while retaining viewership and ratings alike.

According to a February survey from the Pew Research Center, 19% of adults had already received at least one dose of a vaccine, while another 50% said they were sure or likely to be vaccinated. Despite growing optimism about vaccinations, those numbers differ when broken down by race and ethnicity.

In a poll in November, 42% of black adults said they would be vaccinated, compared to 63% of Hispanics and 61% of white adults. Now, about 61% of black adults say they plan to get vaccinated or have already been vaccinated, while 70% of Hispanics and 69% of whites agree, according to data from Pew.

While polls indicate a growing confidence in the direction of vaccination, there is no reason why people are still hesitant, and besides race, there are other factors that lead to higher levels of skepticism, such as politics (GOP affiliation), religion evangelicals) and geography (rural Americans). Seventy-two percent of the Pew study respondents cited concerns about side effects; 67% were concerned about the rapid development and testing of vaccines; while a further 61% noted a lack of knowledge about how they work.

“We’ve looked at how to tell stories about vaccine reluctance, but it’s not a monolithic problem with one idea,” Baer says.

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For example, some of the mistrust and skepticism about vaccines and the medical system in the African-American community dates back to the infamous 20th-century Tuskegee study of syphilis. In recent months, African-American medical associations and professionals have stepped up their social media efforts to promote the vaccine to a group that has been one of the hardest hit by the pandemic.

According to the latest Kaiser Family Foundation Vaccine Monitor Survey, about a quarter of black adults said they were more likely to take a wait-and-see approach to getting vaccinated, compared to more than half who said so in December. Of the Latino community, where language barriers and lack of confidence in the government were factors, only 18% said they would “wait and see” compared to 43%. Among white adults, those who showed wait-and-see attitudes fell from 36% to 16%.

“There is still a bit of hesitation. About 10-15% of Americans are quite against getting vaccinated and probably another 15% are pretty skeptical, so we have to work on that. In terms of herd immunity, there is none. question that … we should probably be well above 70 percent, probably in the 1980s or 1990s, ” Ashish Jha, Dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, told CNBC’s Meg Tirrell on the CNBC @Work Summit on March 30.

As of 6 a.m. Thursday, 19.4% of the U.S. population has been fully vaccinated, while about a third have received at least one dose, the CDC reports. According to public health experts, it’s critical to convince more Americans across broad walks of life to get vaccinated without pushing too hard.

“I think the best way to convince people is to convince people, it’s not necessarily to make it mandatory, and again, there are some people who are skeptical, more in the wait and see category, and I think they can be encouraged, ‘said Jha.

Technology companies are doing more to combat vaccine misinformation on social media, one of the leading causes of vaccination issues. Last month, Facebook announced it would label messages about Covid-19 vaccines and launched a nationwide tool to provide information and help users locate vaccines. The announcement came after harsh criticism from lawmakers for enabling the spread of vaccine conspiracies and disinformation on its platform. Twitter said in December it would flag and, in some cases, remove reports of vaccine misinformation.

The influence of television

Ongoing studies suggest that what viewers see on television informs their knowledge and attitudes, making it an effective platform to disseminate and relay public health information.

For example, an early 2000s study from the KFF showed that integrating storylines about emergency contraception and human papillomavirus into the hit show “ER” drastically raised awareness. The number of viewers who said they knew about HPV nearly doubled in the week after the episode aired, while those who could correctly define HPV and its link to cervical cancer tripled.

Major television networks in the 1980s are also credited with participating in a nationwide Harvard School of Public Health-designated driver campaign aimed at curbing drunk driving.

According to a recent study conducted by researchers at the University of Michigan, appealing to concerns about the protection of loved ones could motivate some Covid-19 skeptics. The survey, which interviewed 1,074 people nationwide about their attitudes to the pandemic, found that those who view social distance as a violation of their rights and freedoms responded more positively when it endangered a loved one.

We are working as fast and furious as we can to get the message out there.

Creative Coalition CEO Robin Bronk

Refraining from mastering language such as ‘you should’ or ‘you could do better’, respecting and affirming their concerns and ‘agreeing with them as much as possible’ can also be an effective way of communicating reasons for getting vaccinated in this group , says Ken Resnicow. , one of the study authors.

Resnicow says vaccine skeptics generally split into two groups, the “wait and see” group, which includes many minority communities, including blacks and generally respond better to new information, and the “hard no” group, populated by both white Republicans. as evangelicals. , who often see vaccination or masking as a threat to religious freedom.

“Information will not convince them,” says Resnicow. “That ‘hard no’ group will not necessarily be moved by data on efficacy or safety, because the fundamental objection is much more emotional,” and built on persistent beliefs about government and religion.

Convincing Covid stories

Helping writers and television shows communicate compelling messages is the mission of Cultique, a company that advises the entertainment industry on cultural issues. Linda Ong, the CEO and founder, says one way to do that is by modeling behavior. The technique is as simple as explicitly depicting a character looking for more vaccine information or as subtle as showing a character thrusting elbow or running in for a mask, which can be an effective tool for those on the edge, says Ong.

Ong started the “Be a Protector” messaging campaign in January to encourage industry professionals to help model safe Covid-19 behavior. Michigan, Yale, USC’s HHS, The Ad Council, and the Creative Coalition – a nonprofit that works with actors, directors, and entertainment industry employees to educate about social issues – are among the groups that have already joined the program .

“Someone who hasn’t studied science for 20 years would rather hear a story,” said Sten Vermund, dean of the Yale University School of Public Health who works with the group. “Those of us in science need to do much better with storytelling.”

Arsenio Hall (left), Danny Trejo and Magic Johnson pose for a photo after they all receive vaccination shots on the roof of the parking garage at USC as part of a vaccination awareness event at USC on March 24, 2021 in Los Angeles, California.

Gina Ferazzi | Los Angeles Times | Getty Images

The Creative Coalition is currently working with writers on shows such as “New Amsterdam” and “Grey’s Anatomy” to combat vaccine hesitation, said Robin Bronk, CEO of the organization. Much of the work for disseminating information across cable, digital, and streaming channels includes briefings, Zoom meetings, and providing raw data for writers to implement in storylines.

Some organizations are betting on publicity events with influential celebrities to rally support for the vaccines. In March, Dolly Parton changed her vaccine in a public service announcement when she received her first dose of the Moderna vaccine at Vanderbilt University Medical Center and sang a vaccine song to the tune of “Jolene.” BET, in an effort to influence black audiences, aired a half-hour TV special in January with actor and director Tyler Perry asking questions and receiving a vaccine.

The Creative Coalition, in partnership with the Yale University School of Public Health, will release a series of short public service announcements in an effort to influence public opinion, the first of which will feature Morgan Freeman and aired April 5.

“It’s about how you use the power of entertainment and the arts for social well-being,” Bronk says. “We are working as fast and furious as we can to get the message across.”