The IFJ has interviewed Ronny Suárez, the deputy health editor of ‘El Tiempo’, one of the main newspapers in Colombia, who has more than 10 years of experience in health journalism and explains the key concepts when reporting on the Covid-19 vaccines.
1. How would you describe the current media coverage of vaccination programs?
Journalists are constantly learning. We are facing an unprecedented situation and witnessing unprecedented scientific developments, and we are learning how all of this works from a technical point of view, what are its social implications, what are the best ways to communicate the overwhelming amount of information that arises every day. "Overwhelming" would be the word to describe what we are experiencing.
We know that there are many things at stake, not only for our profession but for society and for the lives of thousands of people, so it is a very defining moment for those of us who are closely covering the vaccines and the pandemic.
2. The pandemic has forced non-specialist journalists to cover vaccines. What would be your main recommendations when covering this issue?
The first thing is to get expert advice, to ensure a reputed consultant who can be asked all the necessary questions and who can be, almost full time, helping us in the process of publishing a news article. Journalists covering the vaccines also have to analyze in detail the implications of what is being said, that is, to understand the potential that their information has and how it can impact readers.
Likewise, another recommendation is to read as much information and as many sources as possible to get a greater context of the situation. As we all know, contextualised journalism is much more useful, it has more value and it is more appreciated by audiences.
3. We are witnessing a huge campaign of misinformation about the vaccine. How can journalists better filter out false news while scrutinizing pharmaceutical companies?
Ideally, they should go to reliable sources of information. In the midst of this rigorous exercise and with the support of health experts, it is vital to choose carefully your sources of information and obviously, always verify and question all the information. I also recommend working as a team. With this, I am not just referring to cooperation among co-workers, but with journalists from other media, to create a network of collaboration with people who cover the same kind of stories. This helps a lot when covering the most complex and difficult news.
4. What advice can you give to journalists to avoid s-called yellow journalism and sensationalism in vaccine coverage? In your opinion, what are the most accurate and reliable sources?
First, we must stress every day the importance of journalism in society. When journalists understand how essential our role is in society, there will be a greater responsibility with what we publish. Our duty is not just about clicking on a news piece, but being aware of what happens when people read the information we are disseminating.
There are clear examples of what happens when we mishandle information. In Colombia, for example, during the vaccination campaign against the human papillomavirus in Carmen de Bolívar, a municipality located in the north of Colombia, the misinformation about some episodes of alleged adverse reactions to the vaccine caused the vaccination rates to drop dramatically because of the alarm created. Later on, it was proven that those reactions were unrelated to the vaccine. Everything we report on could have a huge impact on society.
Therefore, we must avoid the so-called yellow journalism. For a badly-earned click, we are going to lose credibility, and there is nothing more important than that for us. Finally, good information sources can be scientific magazines. We must be aware of everything they publish. Journalists should also have direct contact with scientific associations, which are great sources of information. We should also have a look at the best media coverages from other media and get inspired by them.
For his work during the pandemic, Suárez won the Rosalynn Carter scholarship for mental health journalism, awarded by the Gabriel García Márquez Foundation for the New Ibero-American Journalism, for a proposal that seeks to make visible the mental health status of Colombian health workers who are on the first and the second line of response to COVID-19 during the current health crisis.