January 14, 2021

When it comes to reporting on the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccines, context is everything.

As millions of doses are injected into the arms of people around the world, adverse events are inevitable, even under the best of circumstances.

A small percentage of the population will have allergic reactions. Because the two vaccines now in use in the United States (from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna) are highly, but not completely, effective, some recipients may become infected with the virus. And some people who have been vaccinated will get sick — or even die — from unrelated, if coincidental, causes.

The media needs to be discerning about the vaccination-related events it reports, and how it does so. Above all, it must avoid sensationalizing such incidents, whether in news reports or on social media.

Journalists need to stress that occasional adverse reactions are rare and treatable — the estimated overall rate of anaphylaxis (a life-threatening allergic reaction) after vaccinations is about 1.3 per 1 million, and a similar allergic reaction rate is expected for the current COVID-19 vaccines — and that the small number of issues with those vaccines are outliers amid the administration of many millions of doses. Barring an unexpected turn of events, the odds of a bad outcome from taking the vaccine are minuscule compared with the prospect of getting sick or dying from the virus itself.

Why does this matter?

If we are to return to some semblance of normal life, we will need to achieve herd immunity — resistance to the spread of a virus gained once enough of the population has been vaccinated or infected with the disease. This will be no easy task, and not just because vaccine distribution is so complex and the federal government’s initial effort so inept.

Even though the vaccines may have the potential to stem a pandemic that has infected more than 23 million cases and more than 384,000 deaths in the United States alone, the latest polls show that 27% to 37% of all Americans say they will probably or definitely not be vaccinated. The number could grow if people perceive that the vaccines are unsafe.

The entrenched anti-vaccination community, with its active and self-reinforcing online network, has for years falsely claimed that vaccines are linked to autism and other harmful effects. It has been fomenting distrust of any vaccine for COVID-19 from the start, including peddling disinformation and conspiracy theories about the causes of the virus. These anti-vaxxers are certain to pounce on adverse reactions as evidence that the vaccines are harmful.

There are other concerns about the COVID-19 vaccines. The remarkable and unprecedented speed with which they were developed has fueled suspicion that corners were cut in safety trials. This was compounded by President Donald Trump’s vows, over a number of months, that a vaccine would be available by Election Day. Even the name of the vaccine development program — Operation Warp Speed — has invited skepticism.

As a result, even some health care workers — who have personally borne witness to the devastating toll of the pandemic and have early access to the vaccine — are reluctant to be immunized. “Fast and free just doesn’t equate,” Kida Thompson, a family physician in El Paso, Texas, told NPR. “This whole thing has been politicized from Day 1.”

(And as if these challenges were not enough, millions of adults are terrified of needles — even ones that might save their lives.)

This heightens the responsibility of journalists to cover the vaccination story accurately, completely and contextually. But the early returns are not entirely encouraging.

“Nurse faints while talking to press about getting COVID-19 vaccine,” blared a headline in the New York Post on Dec. 18. Only in the last two paragraphs did the reader learn that the nurse “has a condition where she often faints when she feels pain.” She said she felt fine after the pain in her arm from the injection subsided.

“ER nurse tests positive for COVID eight days after receiving vaccine” was the headline on a Dec. 28 report by a San Diego television station (which received worldwide distribution when Reuters wrote a short item about it, using a similar headline). The report did go on to acknowledge that the nurse had received only the first of two doses, the vaccine generally takes 10 to 14 days to be effective (and doesn’t reach its full effectiveness until after the second dose), and the nurse may have been infected with the virus before being vaccinated.

Still, there are hopeful signs.

Facebook said last month that it would remove false claims about COVID-19 that are debunked by public health experts. YouTube had previously pledged to remove misleading claims about the vaccines.

On Dec. 28, President-elect Joe Biden promised to launch a “massive national campaign to increase vaccine acceptance” — especially in Black, Latino and Native American communities, which he noted “have not always been treated with the dignity and honesty they deserve by the federal government and the scientific community.” Celebrities, including those from communities of color, and local leaders are being encouraged to allay concerns by promoting the message that any potential risk associated with the vaccines is dwarfed by their proven benefits.

Moreover, the arrival of the vaccines as the virus surges has diminished the resistance to them. A Gallup survey conducted in November found that 63% of Americans were willing to be immunized, up from a low of 50% in September. A December survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation put the figure at 71% if scientists determine that the vaccine is safe and it is available for free to everyone who wants it.

Each of us has a role to play as well. We need to read past the headlines, look for context in the reporting about the reaction to the vaccines, and seek credible news and other information about the process.

“All Americans have to be cognizant of what we share,” Renée DiResta, an expert on misinformation, wrote in her recent piece for The Atlantic about vaccination and misinformation. “Each of us has remarkable power to amplify content.”

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Alan C. Miller is the founder and CEO of the News Literacy Project, a national nonpartisan education nonprofit. He won the Pulitzer Prize for National…
Alan C. Miller

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