The detrimental news coverage of the COVID-19 vaccine

Rachel Carroll ✨
5 min readDec 14, 2020

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Anti-vaxxers. Allergic reactions. Bell’s Palsy.

Photo by Daniel Schludi on Unsplash

Last Tuesday, the courageous Margaret Keenan, aged 90, marked history as the first person in the world to receive the Pfizer and BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at University Hospital in Coventry. And, William Shakespeare from Warwickshire, (no it is not the playwright before you ask), was the second person to receive the injection.

After a difficult and scary year, this news came as a great relief to me and the rest of the nation. Even Health Secretary, Matt Hancock could not help his tears when interviewed on Good Morning Britain. The vaccine is a sign of hope for a more ‘normal’ 2021 where the prospect of hugging a loved one is not forbidden and dining with more than 6 people is nothing more than a distant memory.

So why has this positivity not been reflected in the press?

“If it bleeds, it leads” — Eric Pooley

It is common knowledge that ‘negativity’ is the most ‘basic news value’ as it is what grabs readers' attention. Journalists will write about the one in a million if it means they will sell more copies of their paper or magazine.

For example:

Headline from The Telegraph

Despite 800,000 doses of the vaccine being secured, and almost 140,000 doses already administered in the UK, The Telegraph and other media outlets are only interested in reporting the small numbers of people who have experienced side-effects as it is deemed more newsworthy. This happens all the time in journalism because negative news is believed to be more interesting to readers, so anything positive is often given a negative slant.

The hyperbolic verb ‘suffer’ in the headline sensationalizes the allergic reaction when in reality both staff members recovered quickly and are now in good health. Allergic reactions to medication are extremely common and occur every day with basic drugs like paracetamol and Calpol. Thus, it is not surprising or unusual that some people have experienced allergic reactions to the COVID-19 vaccine.

By focusing and hyping up these minimal dangers, the press is playing a dangerous game as they have a powerful influence in orchestrating public opinion. Health journalists should be encouraging the nation to get the vaccine for a safer future, not dissuading them by drawing on small statistics (two NHS workers).

The MHRA would not have approved the vaccine or allowed it to be mass rolled out in GPs if it was not safe.

Another example of a fear-mongering headline is:

Headline from Mail Online

Whilst the side-effect is alarming, the article goes on to state that there is no clear basis upon which to conclude a causal relationship between the vaccine and Bell’s palsy. So why is Mail Online scaring people and fuelling anti-vaxxers when it is not even scientifically proven? It is just a click-bait article.

Not only is the press scare-mongering people by emphasising these side-effects, but they are also using exaggeration.

Mail Online in a different news report used the headlinenearly half of care home staff WON’T take Covid vaccine” when further down in the article it says only “17–20% say they definitely won’t have it” with the rest still undecided. By exaggerating the numbers of people who won’t get the vaccine, they could potentially influence impressionable people to also follow suit because they think they are in the minority.

This is dangerous.

As Sir David Omand put it “if the anti-vaxxers don’t get vaccinated, this will make life for everyone more hazardous”, especially those who are most vulnerable. It is important that journalists use their platforms in a responsible way and avoid creating panic. Although, if anyone knows the famous media coverage of the mods and rockers in 1964 they will know that this type of fear-mongering has always existed in journalism.

To explore this further, I conducted a survey of 100 people, and here are the results:

Results from my survey on Typeform

Although a majority of people said they will get the vaccine, it is disappointing to see how almost a quarter of people will not. Especially because 22% of the 98 people who answered said the news influenced their decision. If we want to achieve herd community, then roughly 80–95% of the population needs to be vaccinated. But with the way it is going, especially across news media, the chances of this happening are very slim.

When asked why they think it is dangerous when the press emphasise and exaggerate the risks of the vaccine one respondent said:

“the news is inciting high levels of fear and mass anxiety for no reason. This will slow down the process of combating coronavirus and could lead to other issues. Especially when you add lockdown to the mix where people are already in their own heads.”

Another exclaimed:

“The coverage is harmful because it picks up on small things like allergic reactions and uses it to fuel anti-vaxxers. The news should be persuading the public to get the vaccine as it is important for people's health.”

However, not all media outlets are doing this. In fact, Stourbridge News published a refreshing article earlier this week entitled: “Why we shouldn’t panic about the new advice on Covid vaccine”.

This kind of pro-vaccine coverage is exactly what we need if we want a safer future. But the only way this will work is if the pro-vaccine material in the press outweighs the anti-vaccine material, otherwise it is futile.

Journalists, if you’re reading this, please adopt a balanced and scientific approach when writing about the vaccine. As those who fail to report objectively will make their respective paper not be recognised as a “free arbiter of truth.”

In addition, the more positive coverage surrounding the vaccine, the more likely people will get it and anti-vaxxers will change their minds which is exactly what we need if we want a stronger and healthier future.

So, let's hope that health journalists move away from this unnecessary and irresponsible fear-mongering and start adopting a more informative and neutral approach when reporting the COVID-19 vaccine.

Let me know your thoughts on this COVID-19 vaccine news coverage on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram, and stay tuned for more information on journalism.

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Rachel Carroll ✨

Well hello there and welcome to my blog that explores topical and broad issues around #journalism. I hope it stimulates you 😆 Twitter & Insta: @RCarrollJourno