Seares: Criticisms on news report of OFWs vaccinated abroad but tested positive in Cebu. Did media get the story wrong?

Pachico A. Seares
·5 min read

"Why post a headline saying 'OFW from UAE tested positive even if ... vaccinated?' The vaccine was never meant to prevent you from getting the virus; it prevents you from dying if you do get the virus. Why can't the media get that? Are you trying to scare people or make a sale?" -- From a Facebook post, February 20, 2021

"I read in a newspaper a few days ago this story that said 'Two vaccinated OFWs get Covid.' The story is patently wrong because it gives the impression that anti-Covid vaccines no longer allow a person to get the disease." -- From a newspaper column, February 22, 2021

THE Facebook comment clearly complained about the headline, quoting the allegedly offensive heading. The newspaper column referred to the news story, but still quoting a headline.

Both didn't like the effect of the news: It could "scare people," said one. Or "give the wrong impression" about the vaccines, said the other.

The fact is the story itself gives vaccines a bad name. Media must have known that but still reported it, responsibly enough by giving the explanation for what happened and what it meant

The headlines

A check on the news stories (published February 18 and/or February 19) showed these headlines:

[1] OFW vaccinated vs. Covid, tests positive for virus (SunStar);

[2] 2 vaccinated OFWs who tested positive both asymptomatic (Freeman/PhilStar);

[3] Returning OFW from UAE tests positive for Covid-19 despite vaccination (Inquirer/CDN);

[4] 2 OFWs vaccinated vs. Covid-19 in UAE, Canada test positive for virus (ABS-CBN);

[5] Vaccinated OFWs in Cebu test positive for Covid-19 (CNN).

The core facts

Two basic facts that the above headlines uniformly contained: One, the overseas workers -- one, a male from United Arab Emirates and the other, a female from Canada -- and were previously vaccinated abroad. Two, they were later tested positive in Cebu.

Those are core data that cannot be omitted from the headline without making it fatally incomplete. An editor of Morning Times, a Cebu City daily in the sixties and seventies, once headlined a story with two words: "Blast fishing." Colleagues who asked what happened and why the news made it to Page 1 got this reply: A fisherman used a dynamite, killing himself and hundreds of "bolinao" or small fish. The Times headline didn't offend anyone but it did not give the gist of the news.

The Covid news headline contained the gist of the story but like many other stories on the pandemic required some explanation. But the explanation cannot all be tucked into the newspaper headline although the digital versions get more space and thus can give more facts in the headline.

What's right with the story

Was the story "patently wrong"?

The basic facts of the two OFWs having been vaccinated abroad and having been tested positive in Cebu were not disputed. The source of the story was Dr. Mary Jean Loreche, chief pathologist and spokesperson of the Department of Health-Visayas. She had the expertise and the authority to speak about the news development.

Did the story miss relevant information?

Dr. Loreche gave details on the travel of the two OFWs and their inoculation, including the kind of vaccine, doses and dates they were given, as well as health protocols such as their quarantine upon arrival.

And the story, in the versions I read, included the explanation by Loreche that "getting vaccinated does not mean that the person will never be infected with Covid-19." She said the vaccine "helps prevent from developing a more severe illness." And the results in the case of at least one OFW, she added, are "good since the patient did not develop severe illness," an indication that the vaccines probably worked.

The SunStar story, for one, spent its first six paragraphs on Loreche's explanation on how the infections probably occurred.

The story in ABS-CBN also contained the steps the DOH was taking to isolate and treat the patients to avoid transmission. And Loreche's appeal to the public "not to get scared of getting the jabs."

Could've done, could do better

The headline reflects the story. And in the OFW story, the headlines of the various media outfits did just that.

Could the headline writers have done better? With more space and time, they could've and still could.

Rappler, in its February 18 story, headlined thus: "Does Mandaue OFW's positive Covid-19 test mean vaccine failed? No, it doesn't." Apparently though it was updated, very much doable as the news cycle keeps moving, allowing more time for more reporting and longer assessment of the story. Freeman/Philippine Star in a February 19 story added a third information in the headline: both patients were asymptomatic.

While work force in many newsrooms has been depleted, capacity and technology have increased. The continuous news cycle and the format of the news carrier enable round-the-clock correction of error and improvement on reporting and editing. Media can quickly change if the slip shows.

Counter-balance

News from the established news organizations have remained more credible than most social media comments. Facebook asks "What's on your mind?" and not "What credible news do you have?"

As to errors, they have always hounded even organized news media, despite their mechanism and experience on news gathering and gate-keeping. The saving grace is that most own and correct their mistakes.

And no, a slip by one or two newspapers or news media sites does not make "the media" a failure. And the mistakes, unless ignored and unexplained or un-corrected, do not spell doom for communication and the community. And most errors are not deliberate; otherwise, media would be shooting their own foot.

To many people, organized media -- whose work also appears on digital platforms -- remain a strong counter-balance to the peddlers of false information elsewhere.