The Health Journalists Network in Uganda held a Focus Group discussion with health reporters based in upcountry media outlets as part of the project with AVAC and the Sabin Vaccine Institute.
Qn: Do you think COVID vaccines are the same or different from other vaccines, like childhood vaccines, yellow fever, etc? In what ways?
Respondent 1: I think they are quite different because there is no much science available to find exactly what treats COVID-19 unlike the other diseases and infections which have been scientifically proven and given a specific treatment. But also, when it comes to the issue of administering, when it comes to African countries, there is a particular age group that is being targeted for vaccination against COVID-19, while for the rest of the diseases, children are started with vaccination when they are months old. To me they are different because we do not have a specific vaccine that we can say it is this one which treats COVID-19 and the other diseases yet they have been scientifically proven—particular diseases with particular characteristics and also vaccines have been designed specifically for them.
Respondent 2: To me I think to a small extent there is some change because if you look at COVID-19 vaccines, it has come with a number of mixed reactions among the public, where you find that some people are complaining that the vaccine is bringing so many problems to them. So many mixed reactions among the public and if I have to say, because this vaccine is covering the whole world, so because they
started from somewhere and for us here it came late, so many people are thinking while following social media posts that this vaccine is not right to be taken, well aware that many medics say that COVD has no cure. So, in most cases I think that this vaccine is totally different from other vaccines, more so it is taken twice and for us in Uganda in particular, I have seen why most people are not taking the vaccine. Some think if you take the first jab, it is not easy to get the second jab, because the way the vaccines are flowing into the country, sometimes if depends on finances although we have some donations. So, people are doubting so much that maybe these vaccines is intended to reduce on the population.
Respondent 3: I think these COVID19 vaccines are the same as other vaccines. Reason being though I haven’t been vaccinated as yet, all the effects of these vaccines are the same as existing vaccines we have been getting. May be the reason as to why people are rejecting to be vaccinated is because these vaccines were not first tried out on animals as is the case with existing vaccines. We have seen vaccines come in but they first try them out on animals. But people think COVID19 vaccines were not tried out on animals and were just brought directly to them that is why many are rejecting to be vaccinated. But I think they are the same.
Qn: What do you think your responsibility is as a journalist in reporting on COVID vaccines? What do you think is outside of your responsibility as a journalist when reporting on COVID vaccines?
Respondent 1: Journalists have a responsibility to inform the public on effects—positive and negative effects of the jab, well aware that when the jab was initially introduced, we know how a lot of disinformation was going around the country. As a journalist, personally I did stories to counter the disinformation.
Respondent 2: Yes, I have a responsibility as a journalist because we know our work is to inform the people on exactly what happens. For me as a journalist, I have a responsibility to report objectively not to take sides. Maybe if the vaccine is doing bad, I have to report about that. Probably if someone has faced any challenge after taking the vaccine. So, my work is to report objectively so I have the responsibility to
ensure that the people that are the consumers of information get the real information that they deserve.
Respondent 3: It is my responsibility because first of all if I don’t report about the vaccines, people will not know. And if there is anyone who gets an effect after getting vaccinated, I have to report about it also for the government to know. If we reporters don’t report about the vaccines, how will people know that the vaccine has been brought and it works. Because I think Uganda cannot make a mistake to import
vaccines that are not working. I want to give an example. Today we did a story where National Medical Stores and Ministry of Health came out to clear what an MP said yesterday that the vaccine being given are expired. So that information had gotten out and if we don’t get comments from responsible authorities, Ugandans may think what is being given is expired and they don’t come out to be vaccinated.
Respondent 4: The fact that we are a mirror to the world, a silence from us as journalists is a death trap for the world. It is what we put out to the public that shapes the decisions to go save their lives or forget about saving their lives. As a journalist I play an instrumental role to report about the vaccines be it the bad side—side effects and telling them why they need to get the vaccine.
Respondent 5: The fact that COVID19 vaccine is a voluntary thing, it is also proper for me as a journalist to tell the person making up their mind to go for the vaccine and in case of side effects, they know what side effects to expect. We have seen people who had comorbidities and after getting the vaccines, their conditions worsened and they passed away. I lost an aunt who had diabetes and of course when she took the vaccines, for two weeks she was okay but then her sugar levels dropped. When she went to hospital, they tried to manage the sugar level and then she came into contact with a covid 19 positive case and after a short while, she tested positive for COVID19. So, doctors were at crossroads whether to first manage sugar levels or treat COVID19 and in a span of one week, we lost her. So as a journalist it is my duty to orient people with comorbidities that they might react badly and may react badly.
Qn: What do you think is outside your responsibility?
What is outside my responsibility is making a decision on behalf of a person whether to go and be vaccinated or not. I don’t have to persuade people to go and vaccinate but I have to inform them so that they make their own decisions.
Qn: Do you think journalists have a responsibility to help ensure more people take COVID vaccines? Why or why not?
Respondent 1: We as the media play a key role in mobilizing people to take up vaccines. If we as media continue writing good stories about the vaccines, more people will get involved and take the jab. But if we go ahead and write negative stories on the vaccines, focusing only on the negative impact, most people will run away, because even here in Teso region, there are people who have gotten the first jab.
Respondent 2: We shouldn’t lose our primary focus of being impartial when reporting COVID related stories. It is not our responsibility to report basing on certain emotions. As journalists we shouldn’t report on the positive part alone because that is the story itself. So why are you running away from the negative or positive side of the story. Our cardinal role is to report issues as they are, not to report depending on
what policy makers or government is saying. In Nwoya district, education authorities are finding it hard to mobilize teachers to go and get vaccinated ahead of school reopening and yet on the other hand government had said vaccination is voluntary. At the moment what is going on is that everybody is being forced to take the vaccine compulsorily. If I do not want, why must I be forced, it loses the meaning of being voluntary. Let people take vaccines based on their conscience rather than being forced. As journalists we have an obligation to independently report on such issues without being influenced by policy makers. In this case if we want to play a cardinal role in reporting about the pandemic, we must be very objective without any biases. Whether the issue is negative or positive depending on the circumstances on the ground, we must report the issues as they come not as you think.
Respondent 3: It is our responsibility; we shouldn’t go to them directly telling them you people you should get vaccinated. We should do it the way we do for other stories. There has been news circulating that those who get the vaccine will die within 10 years, so it is our responsibility to get the right information and report the right information which will help ignorant people who think they will die within 10 years to
get accurate information. Many people don’t want to get vaccinated because they don’t have the right information.
Respondent 4: As journalists, the sole responsibility we have is to inform. And we have a social responsibility role, it entails enlightening the public to make fruitful decisions. And I believe there has never been any better time to have journalists than in the times we are in today. Because we are dealing with a disease which the whole world is trying to study and we know that in our part of the world, the majority are not well versed with the scope of the disease. This requires the presence of a media which is not relying only on the information they hear but are also able to do a bit of research to understand. It takes just more than airing a story. We have a big role.
Respondent 5: What we did as journalists was to be one of the first to get vaccinated in Soroti. Seven journalists were part of the team. That convinced other people so majority of people picked interested to be vaccinated because journalists whom they trust in the community have also led by example.
Respondent 6: As journalists we cannot be the sacrificial lamb. I cannot start a campaign to say let’s go and vaccinate first for people to follow. That becomes a gallery sort of thing. It will lure people because of what we did. But rather speaking the truth and giving facts should be our core principle. People follow facts we are relaying to them and not our actions.
QN: Do you think everything you have reported about COVID vaccines has been accurate? Why or why not? How do you ensure that you are reporting accurate information about COVID vaccines and not passing on misinformation or conspiracy theories?
Respondent 1: The reporting I have done has been accurate because often times, I have gone to the experts. I got myself out of the conspiracy reasoning that were being championed by some opinion leaders. All my reporting I get from responsible experts even within the health systems. That includes district health officials, head of surveillance teams. Just like any other journalists, every reporting I do, I make sure I have recordings of everything I have.
Respondent 2: I am not going to run away from the fact that some people can share wrong information and I am not among them. My covid reporting I have made sure I am very careful. I make sure I inquire from the Ministry or district and ensure that the information is accurate.
Respondent 3: I can say my reporting has been excellent because I have never done a story outside what the experts say.
Respondent 4: I think what I have reported so far, since the first case of COVID19 was reported in Soroti in July 2020 has been accurate because I have not got any complaints from anyone. Either the consumers of the information or Ministry officials. I think what I have reported so far is good and has been received well.
Respondent 5: What I do is ensure multi sourcing and confirming to get the factual information. I do a lot of research before I go on to give the information to the listeners.
Respondent 6: In ensuring we cover COVID vaccine stories correctly, we map out as a newsroom the stories that we want to do and speak to the experts. Because you are not an authority in the field, you need experts to give you information to guide you. For instance, we have had a lot of information on social media that those who have taken the vaccines are reporting loss of manhood etc but if you ask yourself, who are those who are complaining? Did they have prior history of manhood loss before taking the vaccines? There are quite a lot of investigations you need to reach before you make conclusions. Social media posts have also prejudiced our reporting as journalists and sometimes we rely on what we have seen on social media but we also have websites like WHO, CDC that can give you information on what you are writing about.
Respondent 6: When you have an idea, you share it with your chief editor and then you map out how you are going to go about it. The second thing is making sure you are up to date as a journalist. We are dealing with a very new disease and everyday there is changes in figures, treatment, signs and so one of the critical areas is getting information. Mapping out key authentic sources of information. Most of us may have written accurate information, but we should also appreciate that there is a lot of misinformation that is getting out. There are a number of journalists who pick sources that are ideally not supposed to be the ones giving information on something like vaccination of COVID19.
Respondent 6: I personally think my reporting has been accurate. If it hasn’t been accurate then the problem has been the experts who have been giving me the information.
Qn: What is your one most pressing question about COVID vaccines?
Respondent 1: Mine is that, has it been tried out first before being given to human beings? We have seen many vaccines before they vaccinate people, they try on animals, have the COVID 19 vaccines been tried out before coming to us?
Respondent 2: What I always ask myself is that even if more people are getting vaccinated, more people are still getting the disease? What is the problem? Where is the problem? Is the vaccine the cause of the spread of the disease?
Respondent 3: Mine is always on the myths and misconceptions because I always want the experts to explain. There are so many myths that are related to this vaccination that is ongoing and if they are not well explained to the audience, we may end up not fulfilling why the vaccination is ongoing.
Qn: Is it true that when you get vaccinated with the vaccine, you lose sexual appetite? Is it true when you are vaccinated, you can still get it?
Respondent 2: Why should people be forced to vaccinate if there is no hidden agenda. If you say it is voluntary, my health is my privacy, why must the government force its citizens to take the vaccination. Why must we not invest more resources in convincing people to accept the reality. Because matters of health are not a joking subject. There are a number of theories that are confusing.
Respondent 3: For me there are two: One is about side effects of the vaccine. People have varying experiences with the vaccine. We are not about the side effects. If you ask people why they have not taken the jab, for many it is the fear of side effects. Some health workers also say if you have a strong immunity, you can beat the virus?
Qn: So, what is what? What is important? Natural immunity or vaccine immunity?
Also, the long-term serious side effects are not known. And for the doses, how many doses are needed? Which vaccines should someone get?
Respondent 1: The question I have is why can’t the world have a harmonized vaccine to avoid the questions of the vaccines from India doesn’t work, to say, this is the most authentic vaccine. Why is it that WHO has not come out categorically on these questions?
Respondent 2: How authentic is the COVID19 jab? What sources do you use for information about COVID vaccines? Why do you trust them?
Respondent 3: One of the sources we use are health experts. In Soroti, it is the district health officer, COVID19 focal person. I also always visit the Ministry of Health website and follow their social media handles. I do data mining on the websites of WHO and CDC.
Respondent 4: Majorly we deal with the District Surveillance team for COVID19, Village Health Teams who deal with communities directly, the District Health Officer and being near the Regional Referral Hospital, we also use the director. We also go to Ministry of Health Twitter handle for daily updates. I also read from BBC to get the worldwide context.
Respondent 5: Primarily it has been Ministry of Health because they give daily updates. At the level where I am, it is district health officer and other online sources.
Respondent 6: My primary source has been Ministry of Health and secondary sources have been the various experts from the district. We have Gulu University scientists who are part of the District Task Force and Gulu and Lacor Hospitals.