6.9: Trusted Messengers, the Media, and the Pandemic

By the summer of 2021, responses to the COVID-19 pandemic by people and state governments had produced two starkly different Americas: One with high rates of vaccinations and low rates of infections; the other with low rates of vaccinations and high and rising rates of infections, especially from the new Delta Variant and its variant, Delta Plus.

While two-thirds of adults in west coast and northeastern states had been vaccinated by July 2021, in other locations, particularly in the south, less than half the population had received even one dose of the vaccine.

Joseph Quarterman shares why he is getting a COVID-19 vaccine MSgt Joseph Quarterman shares why he is getting a COVID-19 vaccine | Public Domain

By August 2021, 99.2% of all U.S. COVID-19 deaths were among unvaccinated people. Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention called it “a pandemic of the unvaccinated" (Andone & Holcombe, 2021, para. 2).

Vaccination for COVID-19 is a complex problem in U.S. democracy. Many people believe it is a personal choice whether or not to get vaccinated. While governments and businesses can issue vaccine mandates to protect public health and to establish safe workplaces for workers and customers, a mandate is not the same as forcing someone to be vaccinated. No government - local, state, or federal - can force a person to be vaccinated; the police cannot arrest someone who is not vaccinated and then make them get the vaccine.

Instead, businesses, governments, and organizations can prevent an unvaccinated individual from using their services or working for them. For example, an unvaccinated student cannot attend the University of Massachusetts Amherst or some 600 other colleges starting fall 2021. Similarly, an unvaccinated person may not be able to board a cruise ship or continue to work in a hospital. However, every organization issuing a vaccine mandate must allow for medical or religious exemptions.

Tweet of President Biden and Olivia Rodrigo putting on sunglasses together in the oval office with description: Thanks for stopping by, Olivia, and for using your voice to urge young people to get vaccinated. If we all do our part and get the COVID-19 vaccine, we can defeat this virus once and for all. Let’s do this. Tweet from @POTUS account

Since the power of governments to compel vaccination is limited, public health officials, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and the chief medical advisor to the President, began emphasizing trusted messengers as a way to combat the spread of COVID-19 by increasing vaccinations among unvaccinated groups. A trusted media messenger is a person or organization that people respect, believe, and will follow its recommendations. In July, the 18-year-old actress and singer Olivia Rodrigo joined the President to urge young people (at the time only 42% of those 18 to 24 were fully vaccinated) to get their shots.

People do listen to someone they trust, including family members, friends, local community leaders, pastors or priests, celebrities, doctors, and even television or radio personalities. But there is no single source of trusted information about the virus and vaccinations whose advice most people will follow.

Who are your trusted messengers about the pandemic?

In this activity, you will examine the media messages of different individuals and organizations in your school and community to assess how they are seeking to influence people’s thinking and behaviors. Then, you will propose ways to deliver trusted messages to young people. 

Activity 1: Analyze Pandemic Media Messengers in Your Community

Designing for Learning: Student-Created Activity Example

Analyze Pandemic Media Messengers in Your Community by Carly Erickson, Brady Buckman, & Emma Stankiewicz

Activity 2: Propose Ways to Deliver Trusted Messages to Young People

“In the COVID-19 pandemic vaccine push, no one is speaking Gen Z’s language,” declared Nicholas Florko (2021). Nationwide, perhaps as many as 25% of young people ages 18 to 24 are vaccine reluctant. What media strategies might help them change their minds? 

Designing for Learning: Student-Created Activity Example

Rate the Potential Effectiveness of the Following Youth-Centered Messaging Ideas by Carly Erickson, Brady Buckman, & Emma Stankiewicz

Additional Resources

Connecting to the eBook

Building Democracy for All: COVID-19 Vaccinations, Face Masks, and the Jacobson v. Massachusetts (1905) Court Case

Connecting to the Standards