Vaccine Stories

CATEGORIES: Ethics Cases

This case focuses on the similarities and differences in the communication roles, goals and normative standards of journalists and scientists. Katie Couric, a reputable journalist with a good record on health issues, did a show on the HPV vaccine that used the powerful communication technique of story-telling in a way that over-emphasized alleged harms. She apologized for the imbalance, but continued to maintain that journalists have an obligation to present stories of vaccine side-effects, even though those stories may feed vaccine-hesitant attitudes that have little scientific basis. Questions presented in this case include:

  • Are stories nothing more than an engaging way of presenting science content, or do they offer their audiences a distinct form of knowledge?
  • Given the persuasive impact of a well-told story, how should journalists select the stories they tell both for and against new technologies?
  • Does a journalist have to take into account the fact that their audiences may be pre-disposed to develop attitudes with little scientific basis, such as vaccine hesitancy?
  • Are journalists and scientists engaged in fundamentally different tasks when they communicate with the public?

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