WXIA Atlanta took an innovative approach to address concerns and mistrust over the COVID-19 vaccines. Instead of a reporter interviewing the experts, they turned the questioning over to an Atlanta viewer skeptical of the COVID-19 vaccines, a mom with two kids who was also a caregiver for her live-in elderly mother.
When viewers flooded WXIA, branded as 11Alive, Tegna’s NBC affiliate in Atlanta, with concerns and mistrust over the COVID-19 vaccines, the station took a novel and innovative approach.
Instead of a reporter interviewing the experts, they turned the questioning over to an Atlanta viewer skeptical of the COVID-19 vaccines, a mom with two kids who is also a caregiver for her live-in elderly mother.
“It was exciting to sit back and watch someone else conduct the interviews for a change,” says Andy Pierrotti, an investigative reporter with WXIA, whose idea it was of using a non-professional journalist to conduct the interviews.
“This type of journalism is transparent, smart and gives audiences a voice,” he says.
Pierrotti says he was trying to find a mom in town who was “a vaccine skeptic or just a mom that is hesitant.”
He emailed all the mothers in WXIA’s newsroom asking if they knew anyone who fit the bill, and within minutes La’Tasha Givens, another reporter at 11Alive, came up with a candidate, Joy Howard, a 40-year old Atlanta resident who works for an insurance company.
Within minutes, Pierrotti was on the phone with Howard.
“We chitchatted a little bit and she says, ‘I am genuinely really scared about this vaccine, but I would be willing to learn more.’”
Besides having reservations about the vaccine, it was important for the project that the resident chosen was Black, says Jennifer Rigby, WXIA’s news director.
“We have a high level of hesitancy with the vaccine in the minority community, a big part of the community we serve here in our market in Atlanta,” Rigby says.
Howard says when she was contacted by Pierrotti, he explained to her the station wanted a regular person to ask the questions because it would be more relatable than a reporter in that role.
“I have never seen anything done like that before,” Howard says. “I was interested and intrigued.”
Howard thought she was one of a pool of candidates the station was considering for the interviews, but when she realized she was the only one, she asked if the station needed to vet her questions before she actually did the interviews. But that didn’t happen, she says.
“Everything was raw,” Howard says. “Everything was just, well, me and they were just there to help me if needed it.”
The plan was for Howard to interview four medical experts about the vaccine. Pierrotti was there only to make sure the experts’ answers weren’t too technical.
Rigby says got to spend up to an hour with each expert. “She was serious about it and she listened,” Rigby says.
Howard says the experts “were excited and enthused and passionate. They just wanted to get the clear information out there. They were actually glad that I was taking the time to ask these questions to get to know more.”
And Pierrotti adds Howard brought unexpected chops to her reporting. “Joy asked questions I never even thought about,” he says, such as whether children can get the vaccine.
The answer is not at this time, but trials are being conducted with children.
“I thought those were really interesting questions that I think a lot of moms want to know,” Pierrotti says.
Howard says although she’d never been on camera before, she wasn’t intimidated. Instead, she seized the moment.
“I was ready,” she says.
Howard’s interviews were edited and aired on 11Alive’s morning and late newscasts. The station also took all the interviews and created a half-hour special that aired during the 5 p.m. news after Ellen.
“The Ellen audience watched it and responded well to it,” Rigby says.
Rigby notes she hopes people will see Howard’s story and feel better about their decision to get the vaccine.
“We didn’t know what her decision would be,” Rigby says. “She decided to get the vaccine, but we went through the journey with her and really didn’t know how it would conclude.”
When Howard watched the edited stories, she thought they were “done very tastefully. I was very pleased at what I saw.”
Afterwards, Howard’s friends contacted her, teasing her about her appearance, “saying they were proud of me, that I was relatable, the camera loves you…. I didn’t do it for those reasons, but it all went hand-in-hand and it benefited the viewers that were watching.
“That is a good feeling.”
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