February 2, 2022

When reporting on car accident deaths, it used to be standard practice in many local newsrooms to indicate whether the victims were wearing their seat belts. Editors leaned on public safety, public record and public education as arguments when explaining that decision to distraught family members who felt as if journalists were shaming the victims.

That is, of course, not what journalists were trying to do. Instead, they were sharing publicly available information because it was relevant. It was a time when many states were legislating seat-belt usage, and when automobiles had very few other safety features.

These days, editors are asking the same question when it comes to the vaccination status of a person who died of COVID-19. In addition to family members being offended at perceived shaming and blaming, citizen vigilantes are now harassing the relatives of unvaccinated COVID-19 victims. That is forcing standards editors in newsrooms around the country to think through when and how to reveal that particular detail.

I reached out to a few standards editors this week. Everyone I reached was aware of the issue. None had come up with formal guidelines. In general, journalists are leaning on the value of relevance as they decide whether to include vaccination status. It’s also helpful to think about like cases around public health matters that might be relevant when reporting on a death.

“If someone died of lung cancer and was known to smoke heavily, we might well mention that in an obituary. Similarly, in a car accident, we might say the victim was not wearing a seat belt. With COVID, it is a matter of interest when a prominent person dies if they had or had not been vaccinated or if they were anti-vaccination,” John Daniszewski, The Associated Press’ vice president for standards, told me via email. “We would use the information if we felt it was relevant to the story and in the interest of the public to know, but also provide context and sensitivity, knowing that a person had died and loved ones are grieving.”

Michael McCarter, managing editor for standards, ethics and inclusion at the USA Today Network, said it’s important to consider family wishes and provenance of the information. After all, it is medical information and merits a consideration of privacy.

“If the vaccination status is relevant and the family has given us the vaccination status and permission to use it, we should. I would advise against using a person’s status without permission simply because it may be on an autopsy report or throwing it in stories where it isn’t relevant,” he said. “Under most circumstances, I believe that it should be treated like any other medical history that stays protected.”

Clearly, the public is interested in the vaccination status of those who have died of COVID-19 because they seek to answer both noble and not-so-noble questions.

The noble questions all are a variant of this same inquiry: Are people dying who have made similar choices about vaccines and mask-wearing that I have made?

The not-so-noble questions are a variant of: Where can I channel my anger and rage? (Reddit users have created the Herman Cain Award just for this purpose.)

Given that journalists have no control over which mindset consumers carry as they approach a story about a person who had died of COVID-19, the best tool storytellers have is context.

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Here are a few questions to ask when considering when to reveal vaccination status when reporting a COVID-19 death.

  • Stories about hypocrisy or irony are increasingly common and therefore less newsworthy now than they were in the early days of vaccine availability. Prominence should be the key ingredient in this choice. Was this person truly influential with your audience and did she spend a significant amount of time and energy dissing vaccines?
  • Sometimes stories are about another topic entirely, but a COVID-19 death impacted the subject of the story. In cases like this, if you include vaccination status, will it change how consumers perceive the story? Will it change the story arc? If not, then it may be worth leaving that information out to spare the family potential harassment.
  • Can you add data about trends? In many states, it’s still very hard to get aggregate information about the vaccination status of those who are dying of COVID-19. Currently, 25 states report this data.
  • Finally, can you bring compassion to the story through original reporting? Simply reporting that a person who died from COVID-19 was unvaccinated is, at best, likely to generate apathy. At worst, it will whip up fury. But sharing details about the person’s life and the impact that she had in this world will make her more human. Ultimately that will make the story more interesting.

At some undetermined point, local newsrooms stopped paying so much attention to whether those who died in car wrecks were wearing their seat belts. The laws were widely adopted. And cars got more safety features, including airbags. This will happen with vaccines as COVID-19 morphs from pandemic to endemic, but it’s going to be a while.

Until then, every newsroom should openly discuss why and how vaccine status is established and included in news stories.

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Kelly McBride is a journalist, consultant and one of the country’s leading voices on media ethics and democracy. She is senior vice president and chair…
Kelly McBride

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