COVID-19 vaccines appear to be working well in Michigan to prevent people from getting sick or dying.
But some news consumers might be getting the wrong impression about how safe the vaccines really are. And many recent headlines — including from established and reputable news sources — aren’t helping.
There have been various versions of a similar headline: BREAKING: 246 vaccinated Michigan residents contracted COVID-19, three died.
MichMash hosts Jake Neher and Cheyna Roth discuss those headlines and why they might be misleading, and continue the conversation with Wayne State University associate professor of journalism Fred Vultee, who wrote headlines for 25 years as a newspaper editor.
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While none of the headlines were factually inaccurate, they did leave out some crucial context. That’s 246 cases and three deaths among 1.7 million Michiganders who were fully vaccinated by the end of March. If you break it down by percentage, that’s .014% of fully vaccinated people who contracted COVID-19, and .0002% who have died if you round up. And it’s not even clear that those people who died would have had full immunity despite getting their second shots.
Vaccine manufacturers, scientists and public health officials have been clear from the start: These vaccines do not offer 100% protection from being infected by the novel coronavirus. But they are highly effective and safe.
In December, the FDA said Moderna’s vaccine was 94% effective overall, and 95% effective for Pfizer. Researchers found that the Johnson & Johnson vaccine was “66% protective against moderate and severe disease overall worldwide, and 72% protective against such cases in the U.S.,” according to NPR, which notes that public health officials warn against comparing those rates of effectiveness because the clinical trials happened at different times under different circumstances.
Perhaps the better, more responsible headline was from MLive, which read, “Among 1.7 million fully vaccinated Michiganders, state identifies small number of COVID-19 infections and deaths.”
“We’re not going to say offhand that this media message makes people get up and walk across the room and turn off the TV. But we say that if it amplifies the wrong ideas, we’d rather have it steer in the direction of amplifying the right ideas.” —Fred Vultee, Wayne State University
Wayne State University associate professor of journalism Fred Vultee wrote headlines as a newspaper editor for 25 years and now specializes in media framing and news practice. He noticed these headlines with concern.
“I don’t want to say that this one headline is gonna make people say, ‘Bang. No vaccine.’ What this can do is maybe amplify or — ‘See, I told you so’ — or remind you that your initial idea, ‘I am scared of vaccines,’ might have been the right one to think about,” says Vultee. “We’re not going to say offhand that this media message makes people get up and walk across the room and turn off the TV. But we say that if it amplifies the wrong ideas, we’d rather have it steer in the direction of amplifying the right ideas.”
“What I want this headline to tell me is that my risk is better than I thought it was, not that my risk is worse than I thought it was,” he says. “And this headline doesn’t tell me your risk is bad. But to me, that’s not the same thing as telling me what it should tell me, which is my risk is not as bad as I thought it might be.”
Vultee says he doesn’t want to tell reporters how to do their jobs. “But that’s a case where I’d say why don’t we look at ways we can do our jobs while doing it better, doing it more effectively, making sure that we’re delivering just that one message that we want to deliver.”
“It’s important to note that people don’t always read the whole story and that first impression is often the one that lasts.” — Fred Vultee, Wayne State University
Although there was nothing factually wrong about these headlines, there’s concern that people are seeing them without that critical context and think that because some people are still getting COVID-19 and some are even dying from it, what’s the point of getting vaccinated?
“Not everybody reads the whole story,” says Vultee. “And if you get to the 13th paragraph, you find out that that 99 number is 99.9%, and it looks pretty good. It’s important to note that people don’t always read the whole story and that first impression is often the one that lasts.”
This is a problem among many established media sources. A recent NPR analysis found that articles connecting vaccines and death “have been among the most highly engaged with content online this year, going viral in a way that could hinder people’s ability to judge the true risk in getting a shot.”
NPR reporter Miles Parks notes that you’re three times more likely to get hit by lightning than die after getting a vaccine.
As a news consumer or just as a person who spends any time online, it’s more important than ever to try to always read farther into these kinds of articles to make sure the impression you’re getting from the headline matches the reality of the situation. And always try to turn to news sources your trust for that information.
But the onus is also on media professionals to understand how information travels online and to acknowledge that even the most educated, media literate, responsible news consumers sometimes simply don’t have time or the ability to read past a headline that they see online.
There’s really no excuse in 2021 to leave out critical context, especially in the one and only part of an article that everyone reads.