When an emergency occurs, the need to communicate is immediate. During COVID-19, the media have helped public health agencies and government actors disseminate information on situations, risks, personal protective actions, and later vaccines, a recent report indicated.
The research, titled “Trust in COVID-19 Vaccines” released earlier this month from global media intelligence provider CARMA showed that since the roll-out of coronavirus vaccination programs, journalists have primarily sought to quote governments and health experts in their reports. Members of governments were the most prominent and widely quoted speakers in almost all regions.
On several occasions, the comments of some politicians and policymakers on the coronavirus vaccine safety and efficacy contributed to producing a risk to vaccine confidence.
The analysis study demonstrated that French president Emmanuel Macron was the politician who delivered the highest number of negative quotes. In January, Macron called the AstraZeneca–Oxford (AZ) coronavirus jab “quasi-ineffective for people over 65,” on the day that the European Medicines Agency recommended approving it.
Macron was followed by Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, whose negative quotes shed doubt on how much research and testing had been conducted on some vaccines.
This was not the case in the UK, USA, and Asia, where politicians were “consistently positive” about the vaccines, as CARMA indicated.
“It was critical to understand the impact of communications of governments and civic leaders on the trust in the coronavirus vaccines,” Mazen Nahawi, founder and CEO of CARMA, told Al Arabiya English. “The report proved how different approaches worked to enhance this confidence, or, in other places such as France, worked to undermine the vaccination effort.”
He added: “As the study shows, mixed messages from the French and German leaderships led to widespread skepticism around the process.”
In Germany, Angela Merkel’s statement that she would not take the AstraZeneca jab because of her age increased the number of vaccine-hesitant residents, the report noted. Merkel later took the jab and encouraged her population to do the same.
In this context, Nahawi – who has been in strategic communications and research for 20 years, highlighted the importance of a transparent discourse in a crisis.
“The most important thing is to communicate the full truth, without hesitation and with complete clarity. This goes hand in hand with a clear plan, which solves problems and engages the public as a trusted partner,” he said, acknowledging that spokespeople matter, particularly in times of crisis – when community members turn to their leaders for reassurance, direction, and guidance.
The report displayed that negative commentary steadily rose over the period with increasing concerns attributed to vaccine efficacy in various age groups and side effects, particularly in relation to the AstraZeneca jab. This prompted the use of emotive rather than factual language in media reporting. Over 40 percent of headlines were emotional in France and Germany and over a quarter in the UK.
As reporting shifted to the side effects and potential risks of rare blood clots in some, primarily younger, recipients, the European populations were alarmed, CARMA revealed. Google searches for terms associated with the side effects significantly increased from mid-March.
Science or politics?
Multiple researchers saw that the AstraZeneca vaccine was unfairly targeted, hindering plans for its global roll-out at a critical time.
Ostensibly, these actions were due to a cluster of cases in which the vaccine may have increased the risk of unusual blood clotting despite several experts say that the vaccine is safe.
Nasser Yassin, professor of policy and planning at the American University of Beirut and interim director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs, believes that the behavior of some political leaders towards certain vaccines raises the issue of politicization.
“At the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, a number of country leaders questioned the origin of the disease, linking it to politics and not science,” Yassin told Al Arabiya English. “Similarly, following the widespread introduction of COVID-19 vaccines, some policymakers started questioning the effectiveness and safety of certain jabs,” he said, describing the response as a lack of leadership.
Amid political battles and clashes over public policy, false narratives are on the rise. In this era of global communication, the words of leaders and influencers matter more than ever, and misinformation remains a pressing contemporary issue and powerfully destructive force.