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The Covid-19 vaccine script that TV shows are using to fight fear and misinformation

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Stars of NBC’s ‘Today’ receiving Covid-19 vaccines on Wednesday, April 7, 2021: 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 vaccination skepticism, some Hollywood producers, writers and showrunners are betting that inputting vaccines into television storylines can help curb widespread misinformation. 

Shows across TV networks began integrating Covid-19 into scripts, including questions about social distancing and masking, as the pandemic spread across the U.S. last March. Now, as vaccination efforts ramp up nationwide, shows like “This Is Us” — which featured a recurring character receive two doses of a vaccine in an episode last month — are integrating vaccines into episodes and audiences can expect to see more vaccination plot points, says Kate Folb, 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 working closely with writers and showrunners to accurately depict health and medical information, and use entertainment to fight the misinformation campaigns and nationwide skepticism fueled by social media.

Using the entertainment industry to relay public health information is not a new phenomenon. Major networks including ABC, CBS and NBC in the 1980s are credited with raising awareness toward a nationwide designated driver campaign by inputting posters and references into shows like “Cheers” and “L.A. Law.”

“People in fact do believe what they see on TV and it’s imperative that we provide accurate information,” says Neal Baer, a doctor and writer and producer on shows like “ER” and “Designated Survivor.”

Vaccine hesitancy by demographic

Writers, health professionals and advocates are grappling with how to tell vaccine stories that cater to a range of opinions, concerns and viewpoints, all while maintaining both viewers and ratings.

According to a February study from Pew Research Center, 19% of adults had already received at least one dose of a vaccine, while another 50% said they would definitely or probably get vaccinated. Despite growing optimism toward vaccinations, those numbers differ when broken down by race and ethnicity.

When surveyed in November, 42% of Black adults said they would get vaccinated, compared to 63% of Hispanics and 61% of white adults. Now, about 61% of Black adults say they plan to get vaccinated or already have, while 70% of Hispanics and 69% of whites agree, according to Pew data.

While polling indicates growing trust toward getting vaccinated, there’s no single reason why people are still hesitant, and in addition to race, other factors that result in higher levels of skepticism include politics (GOP affiliation), religion (white evangelicals) and geography (rural Americans). Seventy-two percent of respondents to the Pew study cited concerns about side effects; 67% expressed worry centered around the fast development and testing of the vaccines; while another 61% noted a lack of knowledge of how they work.

“We’ve been looking at how to tell stories about vaccine hesitancy, but it is not a monolithic one-idea problem,” Baer says.

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Some of the distrust and skepticism toward vaccines and the medical system in the African-American community, for example, dates back to the infamous 20th century Tuskegee study on syphilis. In recent months, African-American medical associations and professionals have ramped up efforts on social media to promote the vaccine for a group that’s 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 are more likely to take a “wait and see” approach to getting vaccinated versus more than half who said that in December. For the Latino community, where language barriers and lack of trust in government have been factors, just 18% said they would “wait and see,” down from 43%. Among white adults, those taking a wait and see approach dropped to 16%, down from 36%.

“There’s still a chunk of hesitancy out there. About 10 -15% of Americans are pretty dead set against getting vaccinated and probably another 15% is pretty skeptical so we’ve got to work on that. In terms of herd immunity, there’s no doubt that … we probably need to be well above 70%, probably in the eighties or ninety percent,” Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, told CNBC’s Meg Tirrell at 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 has received at least one dose, the CDC reports. Convincing more Americans across broad cross-sections of society to be vaccinated without pushing too hard is critical to herd immunity goals, according to public health experts.

“I think the best way to persuade people is to persuade people, it’s not to necessarily mandate it, and again, there are a chunk of people who are skeptical, more in the wait and see category, and I think they can be encouraged,” Jha said.

Technology companies are doing more to fight vaccine misinformation on social media, one of the primary contributors to vaccine concerns. Last month, Facebook announced it would label posts about Covid-19 vaccines and launched a nationwide tool to offer information and help users locate vaccines. The announcement came following harsh criticism from lawmakers for enabling the spread of vaccine conspiracies and misinformation on its platform. Twitter said in December it would mark and in some cases remove posts about vaccine misinformation. 

Television’s influence

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

An early 2000s study from KFF, for example, found that integrating storylines related to emergency contraception and human papillomavirus on the hit show “ER” drastically increased awareness. The proportion 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 during the 1980s are also credited with joining a nationwide Harvard School of Public Health designated driver campaign aimed at curbing drunk driving.

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

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

Creative Coalition CEO Robin Bronk

Refraining from controlling language like “you should” or “you better,” respecting their concerns and affirming and “agreeing with them as much as possible,” can also be an effective way to communicate reasons to get vaccinated with this group, says Ken Resnicow, one of the authors of the study.  

Resnicow says vaccine skeptics generally break down into two groups, the “wait and see” group, which includes many minority communities including Blacks and is generally more responsive to new information, and the “hard no” group, populated by both white Republicans and evangelicals, who often view getting a vaccine or masking up as a threat to religious freedom.

“Information is not going to persuade them,” Resnicow says. “That ‘hard no’ group won’t be necessarily moved by efficacy or safety data because the fundamental objection is much more emotional,” and built on ongoing views of government and religion. 

Persuasive Covid storytelling

Helping writers and television shows communicate persuasive messaging is the mission of Cultique, a company that advises the entertainment industry on cultural issues. Linda Ong, its 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 elbow bumping or running inside for a mask, which can be an effective tool for those on the edge, Ong says. 

Ong kickstarted the “Be a Protector” messaging campaign back in January aimed at encouraging 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 workers to educate on social issues — are among the groups that have already signed onto the program.

“Someone who hasn’t studied science for twenty years would rather hear a story,” says Sten Vermund, dean at the Yale University School of Public Health who is working 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 got vaccine shots on the rooftop of parking structure at USC as a 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 from shows like “New Amsterdam” and “Grey’s Anatomy” to fight vaccine hesitancy, says the organization’s CEO Robin Bronk. Much of the work disseminating information across, cable, digital and streaming channels involves briefings, Zoom meetings and providing raw data for writers to implement into storylines. 

Some organizations are betting on publicity events with influential celebrities to rally support for the vaccines. In March, Dolly Parton turned her vaccine into 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 attempt to sway Black audiences, aired a half-hour TV special in January featuring actor and director Tyler Perry asking questions and receiving a vaccine. 

The Creative Coalition, in conjunction with the Yale University School of Public Health, will debuted a series of short public service announcements in an attempt to sway public opinion, the first of which featured Morgan Freeman and aired April 5. 

“It’s about how you use the power of entertainment and arts for social good,” Bronk says. “We are working as fast and furiously as we can to get the message out.”   

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