Journalists could change the way we think about vaccines in one powerful way

A rare shot.
A rare shot.
Image: AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
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Anyone following the news about a global vaccination gap and the recent measles outbreak that has affected a number of countries around the world is likely to have been exposed to a photograph of a thick needle plunging into the arm of a screaming baby or toddler.

These images can seem like a natural choice to accompany stories about kids and vaccines. But a topic so vulnerable to misinformation, fear, and disinformation campaigns demands a different approach—one that considers highlighting the major health benefits of vaccines, instead of the momentary second of pain they cause.

As a journalist who focuses on early childhood development, I care deeply about the health and wellbeing of babies. It’s true that shots are no fun. But they are life-saving innovations that deserve more credit than our photo choices sometimes give them. They’ve contributed to saving the lives of millions of kids under five by eradicating or seriously diminishing the prevalence of multiple major diseases.

“Photos have a tremendous impact on our cognitive [and] emotional impressions,” says Tara Haelle, a freelance science journalist and author of Vaccination Investigation: The History and Science of Vaccines. “It’s natural for an editor to go for the more dramatic photo…but I think we need to consider the harm and risk of using the more dramatic photo when the less dramatic photo might be the more ethical and accurate choice.”

It’s not easy to find alternatives: Type “vaccines” in most photo platforms’ search bars and you’ll find dozens of pictures that would make anyone wince—whether or not they’re parents. But an extra few minutes of creative searching reveals other options, like pictures of bandaids on arms, vaccine vials, or pediatricians’ offices.

Headlines and photos are a big reason why people share content on social media. A 2016 paper showed that 59% of links shared on Twitter have never actually been clicked on. That means that most people retweet articles they’ve never read. Perhaps they like the writer and already know a lot about the topic. More likely, it’s because the headline confirmed an inherent bias they had about an issue, or the photo was sensational enough to compel them to share it with their network.

There’s usually emotion involved in the process; the stories that are most likely to go viral today are those that evoke strong feelings like joy, sadness, or fear. And nobody likes to see a crying baby, not even the most die-hard fan of vaccines. These photos risk feeding into the cycle of anti-vaccine sentiment proliferating online.

Lauren Whaley, a multimedia journalist affiliated with the Center for Health Journalism at USC Annenberg, wrote in 2015 of her realization that she was choosing alarmist photos to illustrate stories about vaccines. After authoring a series of articles on a measles outbreak in California, Whaley was asked by a reader why she wouldn’t rather “promote the advantages of immunizing children and stop the traditional use of medieval style photos that continue to scare people away.” After some soul-searching, Whaley agreed. “We need to be as thoughtful with our art choices as with our words,” she wrote. “Maybe even more so.”