Video in the News: Seeing the COVID-19 Vaccine

As much as the modern media landscape is saturated with video, it can be hard to find one that truly captures a landmark moment—in a positive sense. Too often, it can seem like the news is saturated only with videos containing tragedy or injustice. While we must force ourselves to watch painful videos to learn from them and prevent their awful contents from recurring, we must also take notice when the news provides us with a video that’s truly momentous for reasons that are uplifting and inspirational.

This video of Dr. Valerie Montgomery Rice and CNN’s Dr. Sanjay Gupta receiving their coronavirus vaccinations is a great example of a significant and positive video.  Over its five minute and twenty-second duration, viewers watch both Dr. Rice and Dr. Gupta receive their immunization, talk comfortably, and even laugh together.

It’s a sight that people around the world have been waiting to see for almost a year. Seeing that vaccination is like seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, even if universal vaccination will still be months away for most of us.

So why, specifically, does this video work so well?

Before we answer that question, let’s look at how CNN could have communicated the news that their frequent contributor, Dr. Gupta, had received the vaccine.  

It could have been in text, as a standard article; “Dr. Gupta Receives Vaccine” might’ve been the title, and people could have simply read a page or two on his experience.  It could’ve been more staged than it was, with music playing and onlookers cheering.  It could’ve been cut together rapidly, jumping from shots of his eyes, to his arm, to Dr. Rice’s eyes, to the nurse, to the needle, and so forth.

Instead, CNN shot their video in one take, from one camera, live. It wasn’t so much staged as planned, in an environment not dissimilar to where most people will receive their vaccinations: inside Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta.

The Power of Authenticity

What does the live, unedited approach provide the viewer in a video like this?  In a word, authenticity.  The video feels organic and unfiltered, precisely the characteristics needed to tell a visual story that feels real.  Even played without sound, the video has this ability.

Of course, the video does have sound, and the synchronization between the sound and the visuals gives the video another advantage: it feels almost normal, and therefore reassuring. The two doctors chat about their own apprehension around needles, despite their daily duties involving administering injections; “It’s different when you’re driving the needle,” Dr. Rice admits, making Dr. Gupta laugh.

The video’s success becomes clearer when we ask what these elements create in terms of message, engagement, and retention. The moment is inherently engaging: this is what it looks like to be vaccinated against the scourge of 2020.  And it’s certainly retainable, as the event has been so long in coming.

The Importance of Sharing a Clear Message

The message, though, is more than a simple “This is a big, memorable deal.”  The sync that I referred to as reassuring (groundbreaking visuals synced to the masked subjects’ calm and lighthearted conversation) provides the other, somewhat paradoxical half of the message.

The whole message of the video is that this is a major moment, but one that will soon be a normal moment.  It’s simultaneously the end of a long road to reach the vaccine—something Dr. Gupta notes by saying a few times that it “feels significant”—and it’s the beginning of widespread vaccinations, which will be quick and easy to receive.  

The normalization comes through Dr. Gupta’s facial expression (well, what we can see above his mask) as he receives his injection: “You’re not wincing at all,” Dr. Rice notes.  “Is it in?” Dr. Gupta asks, to which the nurse brightly responds, “It’s done.”

It’s also worth noting that shooting live and capturing the speed of immunization (fast enough to make even a veteran surgeon marvel at its painless and near-instant delivery) is also highly effective at depressurizing the situation.  Getting the vaccine is not a process of getting ready and undergoing a major procedure.  

It only takes about 1:45 of the 5:20 runtime of the video for both doctors to receive their vaccines.  The rest is a sort of open discussion about the procedure; how clinicians prefer to monitor the recently-vaccinated for a few minutes to ensure they have no (rare) allergic reactions, and how grateful the doctors are to the myriad personnel that made today possible.

This vaccine will be crucial to moving forward, as we all know, and so we have to make its use as comfortable and standard as possible.  By showing recognizable television personalities live on camera receiving their vaccine, we see that it’s not only quick and almost pain-free.  It’s remarkable, even to the medical professionals on camera.

In a world where vaccines have come under fire from small but vocal segments of the population (and one where, already, few of us were excited to get a shot), it’s these kind of highly human, balanced videos that remind us that the coronavirus vaccine should be understood as monumental and simple at the same time.

That old phrase about standing on the shoulders of giants has some applicability here; we did not reach the vaccine by accident, but by the concerted efforts of a multitude of experts and selfless workers.  Dr. Rice makes a point to remind us of this.

At the same time, now that we have it, it’s important to demystify it.  It’s not a magic potion or a lengthy, non-standard procedure.  It’s just a quick poke, and the recipient is on their way to the best defense against COVID-19.  

So, once more—why does this video work?

It’s well-designed to suit its message.  It uses wide framing, uninterrupted footage and real-time synchronization to maintain authenticity, and uses the human forms and voices that viewers are used to flesh out both halves of its theme.  It’s momentous to have, and it only takes a moment to get.

This is what video in the news can do—use visual storytelling and intelligent design choices to communicate a complex idea in ways that text or other media could not.  

Watching Dr. Rice and Dr. Gupta receive their vaccinations is, indeed watching a landmark moment in the news.  Positive news can affect change as much as reporting on hardship, and we can all hope that vaccinations are as easy to get and simple to receive as it was for the subjects of CNN’s video.