How should newsrooms respond to anti-vaccine comments and letters?

Posted on: January 19, 2021 by admin

An editor has banned letters criticising the Covid-19 vaccine from appearing in his newspapers.

In an editorial published on the websites of a number of papers, including the Stroud News and Journal and the Gazette series in Gloucestershire, editor Michael Purton said the seriousness of the pandemic had prompted his decision.

He wrote: “We are no longer publishing letters which make arguments against having the Covid vaccine or any other vaccines.

“Vaccinations are harmless and essential to healthcare.

“There is no scientific evidence to the contrary.

“We have always tried to provide a platform for free speech and open debate, even when that meant publishing opinions which are controversial and opposed by most people, but feel we must make an exception during the pandemic when it is vital that everybody has the vaccine in order to save lives.”

The decision has prompted debate amongst journalists, with former Bristol Post editor Mike Lowe describing it as ‘a difficult call’ while University of Gloucestershire lecturer Paul Wiltshire said: “It’s a really difficult and a potential slippery slope. I’m slightly troubled by it but I admire Newsquest for making it [the decision.]”

Local MP Siobhan Baillie, who previously raised the issue of vaccine disinformation in Parliament, supported the decision.

She said: “No-one wants to limit freedom of speech, least of all an MP or a newspaper, but we are living in very difficult times and, right now, decisions that we would never expect to make are being made every day.

“This is why I fully support the Stroud News and Journal’s decision to stop printing letters that are against the Covid vaccination programme.

“With freedom of expression comes responsibility. Those who misinform or manipulate figures or data to try to persuade people to fear an independently tested and approved vaccination are not being responsible with the freedoms they have.”

Last month, public sector communications expert Dan Slee questioned whether local publishers should be doing more to stop ‘anti vaxxer’ opinions being shared on social media under their stories.

He singled out Reach, as the largest publisher in the area of the West Midlands he researched on social media, as seeing particularly large volumes of ‘anti-vaxxer’ sentiment in comments under its articles on social media. He argued that newsrooms should be doing more.

He said: “Of course, people can debate topics. But when the information in the comments is dangerously inaccurate it makes a mockery of the noble ideals of journalism. This is a shame when there is some good work — Reach included — going on in the content.”

David Higgerson, chief audience officer at Reach, which has issued vaccine coverage guidance to its newsrooms, said: “On balance, we feel we do more good by posting well-researched journalism on Facebook, in the knowledge that the vast majority of people are well-rounded human beings who value the content being provided and the context which is being presented, rather than not posting it on Facebook, thus limiting the positive benefit our journalism can have.

“In all likelihood similar conversations are taking place under our stories all over the internet, in places (including FB feeds) where we haven’t posted at all.

“To use the age old analogy of social media as a pub, it’s like expecting journalists to police debate about every conversation about their work which appeared in the paper when readers were debating it over a pint.”

This piece first appeared on Behind Local News.