Local news outlets should play larger role in helping community members find vaccines

My mother was frustrated. At 78, she was next in line for the COVID-19 vaccine under state guidance in Illinois, but like so many seniors, she was having difficulty navigating the various websites and phone lines to secure an appointment. When she finally got on a waiting list at the local hospital, she found out there were at least 1,000 people in front of her.

After posting about it on social media, friends responded with stories about their own struggles to help their parents get a coveted vaccination slot. High school and grade school friends from my hometown in Central Illinois reached out with tips about waiting lists and pharmacies with the vaccine. She finally got an appointment in another town about an hour away, but then that was abruptly cancelled when the pharmacy ran out of supply.

In the end, it was a phone call from my 85-year-old aunt that enabled her to find an appointment at a local pharmacy and get her first shot.

Throughout her scramble to find an appointment, which included being turned away at a county vaccination site after erroneously thinking she had made one, I kept wondering what role local news could have played in helping her and others navigate the process.

A teacher at Des Moines Public Schools got her first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine at a clinic . (Photo by Phil Roeder via Flickr)

While her local newspaper and TV stations did a good job reporting on who was eligible and also the problems with those people getting vaccinated, I couldn’t find a single interactive map or tool that might have helped her see all of the places distributing vaccines. I couldn’t find step-by-step video instructions for navigating the sign-up at local pharmacies or the county health department. (The CDC only last week released its updated vaccine finder tool to help.)

While I don’t expect the skeleton local news outlets to produce an interactive tool like the one NPR created that helps people in every state find appointments, the pandemic provides an opportunity for us to collaborate to do more than simply report on the state of affairs.

Since 2018, more people in our communities have been getting their news from social media than from print newspapers, according to the Pew Research Center. Many people I know got vaccine appointments after following tips from neighborhood list-serves and Facebook groups. My mom’s relationship with “the news” has deteriorated as it became politicized. But she still watches local TV news and expressed frustration that it wasn’t more helpful. 

Last year I wrote about the unique opportunity the pandemic has given local news outlets to recruit journalism students to bridge gaps in our coverage and to leverage their unique social media and digital storytelling skills. We are now nearly a year into the pandemic, and many of our hometown college students are still at home and in need of professional experience and who would relish the opportunity to help a local media outlet build an interactive chart or graphic that might help their grandparents find a vaccine appointment.

We don’t need web development experts on our staff to pull this off. There are free and low-cost publishing tools like ZeeMaps and StoryMap JS that we can use to produce interactives that help people find vaccine appointments. Journalism schools like mine are teaching these tools to our students. This is the kind of virtual project that publishers could do in collaboration with journalism students at a nearby institution.

The vaccine distribution, varying state guidance and eligibility requirements have created a Survivor Island scramble for shots. Local media outlets are covering that story well but need to do more. We can consolidate information in one place on our websites. We can provide maps.

We also need to help our communities tackle the problem of distributions by looking at places that have succeeded and by examining and understanding data evidence. Most of all, we can do it void of the politicization that has gripped so much of the discourse in our country around the coronavirus and the COVID vaccine. We can give it to our readers straight.

This story first appeared in Publisher’s Auxiliary, the only national publication serving America’s community newspapers. It is published by the National Newspaper Association. GJR is partnering with Pub Aux to re-print Jackie Spinner’s monthly “Local Matters” column on our website. Spinner is the editor of Gateway Journalism Review. Follow her on Twitter @jackiespinner.

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