Did The Press Let Us Down? Yes.

I am a staunch supporter of the rights of the free press, for without a free press, we are subject to being held hostage by the lies and cruelty of a dictatorship.  However, in exchange for We the People supporting the free press, we have a right to expect them to give us facts, not fiction.  We have a right to expect that they will provide us with all the facts, not just the ones that sensationalize a story and bring them readers, aka profit.  Sure, there are the likes of Fox ‘News’ and Newsmax that exist for the sole purpose of providing right-wing conspiracy theories, but I’m talking about the legitimate press, what some refer to as the mainstream media.  Over the past decade, the press has let us down numerous times in a number of ways, but today’s example is one that could cost lives, as Eric Boehlert of Press Run tells us …


How the media botched the J&J vaccine “pause” story

Headlines matter

Eric Boehlert

Concerned about six rare and severe blood clot reactions out of nearly seven million Americans who have received the Johnson & Johnson Covid-19 vaccine, the CDC and the FDA on Tuesday announced a sweeping pause of the immunization in order to investigate the handful of cases.

The J&J vaccine, with its single-dose regimen, currently represents less than five percent of the 100 million-plus vaccines that have been administered this year. The government has more than enough Pfizer and Moderna vaccines to hit the goal of 200 million shots by the end of the month, according to the White House.

Unfortunately for Tuesday’s J&J breaking news, crucial context was missing from most of the headlines. Instead of stressing that less than one in a million J&J shots had produced the troubling blood clot reaction, the press focused on “concerns” surrounding the “halt,”  and how the move “threatens to slow U.S. pandemic progress”:

  • “Johnson & Johnson Vaccinations Halt Across Country After Rare Clotting Cases Emerge” (New York Times)
  • “CDC and FDA Recommend US Pause Use of Johnson & Johnson’s Covid-19 Vaccine Over Blood Clot Concerns” (CNN)
  • “US Recommends ‘Pause’ For J&J Vaccine Over Clot Reports” (Associated Press)
  • “Pause of J&J Vaccine Threatens to Slow U.S. Pandemic Progress Amid Rising Caseload” (Washington Post)
  • “Stocks Wobble After J&J Vaccine Halted, Inflation Uptick” (Wall Street Journal)
  • “US Calls For Pause in Johnson & Johnson Vaccinations Over Blood Clot Concerns” (ABC News)
  • “U.S. Recommends Pausing Use Of Johnson & Johnson Vaccine Over Blood Clot Concerns” (NPR)

It would have been such a simple fix to include “six cases” in each of those headlines, or “extremely rare” in order to give the story crucial, factual context. It’s especially important to provide that full meaning during a public health crisis. Reading those headlines, people likely assumed there were hundreds if not thousands of cases that prompted the vaccine “pause.”

The key omission played into the hands of conservatives who work hard to raise doubts about the virus shots.

It’s true that news consumers who dug into the reports discovered how rare the vaccine-related blood clots were. But those consumers were likely in the minority. According to a  a 2016 study by computer scientists at Columbia University and the French National Institute, nearly 60 percent of links shared on social media have never actually been clicked. “People form an opinion based on a summary, or a summary of summaries, without making the effort to go deeper,” the chief researcher announced.

The J&J news also attracted lots of media attention speculating whether the halt would cause more people to not want to get vaccinated.

It was a bit ironic Tuesday to watch reporters repeatedly press White House officials at the daily media briefing about whether the J&J pause will increase vaccine hesitancy, while never addressing the role the press might play in that phenomenon. By repeatedly failing to put the J&J pause in proper context, specifically with headlines, news outlets bear some of the responsibility this week in pushing alarmist narratives that don’t match the facts.

The CDC and FDA move comes at a time when the conservative media have raised doubts about the vaccines and Republican voters, and white evangelicals in particular, have expressed disdain for getting vaccinated as the country tries to achieve herd immunity in order to return to normalcy. For that to happen, anywhere 75% to 85% of the total population — including children, who are not currently getting the shots — need to be vaccinated.

Nationally, a recent Marist poll in partnership with NPR and PBS found 49% of Republican men said they would not take the vaccine. In Texas, 61 % of white Republicans say they’ll decline. In one county in Alabama, just seven percent of the eligible population has opted to get vaccinated. (More than 90% of county voters backed Trump last year.) And in North Carolina, a coastal county will stop administering vaccines at the end of the month because so few residents are scheduling appointments for the shot.

On Tuesday, the J&J announcement was treated as the biggest Covid news in weeks. The halt came at a time when there had been endless encouraging news about the vaccine rollout during Joe Biden’s presidency.

Is it possible the bad-news angle appealed to the press? A recent study found that the U.S. press prefers to lean into bad Covid news:

The [pandemic] coverage by U.S. publications with a national audience has been much more negative than coverage by any other source that the researchers analyzed, including scientific journals, major international publications and regional U.S. media. “The most well-read U.S. media are outliers in terms of their negativity.”

The important J&J pause story was one that cried out for full context in all aspects of the coverage, including the all-important headlines. Instead, the press bungled the assignment.

38 thoughts on “Did The Press Let Us Down? Yes.

    • I fully agree, but therein lies the problem. About half the people in this country have little common sense and will happily follow the likes of Sean Hannity rather than take the time and trouble to do a bit of investigating.

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    • Well, not all news is ‘disinformation’. I, too, think for myself, but that doesn’t mean I don’t listen to the scientists and the experts who have knowledge that is far beyond my own. I listen, research, then try to weed out any disinformation, but the press does play an important role in our lives.

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  1. Hi Jill, I think you mentioned last year that you would hold off on getting any vaccine b/c not enough was known at the time. Yes covid vaccines are experimental, not approved by the FDA and released for emergency use only.
    I read nearly half of the US military refused the jab b/c they were not mandated to take them due to non FDA approved status.
    With all the information provided by the mainstream news, are you convinced they are safe for public use, and more importantly, have you been vaccinated?
    Personally, I’m taking a wait and see approach, and hold off until more is known of the side effects… such as blood clots, allergic reactions, hyper-inflammation related deaths.
    Are liberal leaning citizens more likely to be protected from the pandemic than conservatives b/c of the media? Does the covid vaccines work as well as big pharma claims?
    I think we shouldn’t be afraid to ask relevant questions, not blindly follow authority, nor should be foolishly buy into conspiracy theories if the vaccines are proven safe & effective and save lives.
    Thanks for sharing an informative article, good to get the discussion going during times of mass confusion. Stay safe and be well. ❤

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  2. By the way, are Americans being charged for their vaccine shots? We in Canada are getting our shots for free under our Public Health laws, but we wonder what a shot is worth? How much are the vaccine companies making off the vaccines in other countries? How much is our government paying the companies for those vaccines?
    At the start of the pandemic, governments around the world were giving millions or possibly billions to private companies to help develop safe and reliable vaccines. Was that free money deducted from the costs of buying the very vaccines we already helped pay to develop. Enquiring minds need to know? Or are we paying what the vaccine companies are holding us hostage to pay, knowing we have to buy the vaccines at any price? What is happening in lesser developed countries? Are they getting enough vaccines to protect their populations? Is the world going to be safe from Covid-19? Or are we going to be battling new strains of Covid every year, as we presently do with the flu?
    Our leaders are telling us the end is in sight? Do you believe them? I do not!

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    • The vaccine is free to everyone. For people who have public or private insurance, their insurance is billed an “administration fee”, but for those with no insurance, the admin fee is paid by public health services. While I don’t know the details or specifics for each brand of vaccine, back in August it was reported the the government paid $10 per dose for the J&J. As to the rest of your question, I don’t know, but will try to look into it this weekend.

      Lesser developed countries are not getting enough vaccines at all, and there has been much talk about countries like mine, yours, the UK and EU giving them some of what they need, but … greed … the “me first” mentality, has thus far largely kept that from happening.

      I read earlier today that there is a likelihood that, because of the various strains, a ‘booster’ or third dose will be needed sometime in the next year.

      I think the end could be near, as early as perhaps late autumn, EXCEPT for the idiots who are refusing the vaccine, who refuse to wear a mask because they say it violates their ‘rights’, and the new strains. So, in short, it could be over before the end of the year, or it may drag on into next year … or even longer. I don’t think our leaders are lying to us, but I think they just don’t know any more than I do. Even Dr. Fauci says we don’t know, much depends on us.

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  3. In Canada right now, exchange J&J with AstraZeneca. In two days the government flip-flopped, twice. It was only for people 18 to 65, and suddenly it was only for people 55 to 65. AstraZeneca was totally safe, then we were getting blog clots. The news last night told us 67%, fully 2/3s of the available doses, are being refused, while people are screaming for vaccinations. But the age-and-need roll-out process has millions of people unable to apply for a vaccine shot because it is not their turn. And, like in America, the mainstream media is playing the flip-flops up. A lot of people are scared to get any shot now, not just the AstraZeneca. I actually have heard nothing at all about the J&J lately despite the hoopla in the US. I think they started to use it a while ago. Maybe they still are. Maybe they aren’t. No one knows.
    One thing I do know, Gail is now scared about the AstraZeneca. She has underlying health issues, including blood issues. How safe is AstraZeneca for her? She is scheduled for her first shot next week, and they will not tell her what product they will be offering her. Why not? How hard is it to say a name? She is nervous to even go.
    Meanwhile, the anti-vaxxers up here are having a field day. The flip-flops and blood clots are telling them they are right to refuse to get shot. The more unvaccinated people, the less chance we are going to defeat Covid. The numbers of new cases are at an all-time high in Canada right now as the third wave settles in. We no longer hear about how other countries are faring. Why not? The general feeling for many people is, What is the media hiding? And that just makes things worse?

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  4. Jill, conflict sells. When a famous editor was asked if the media was biased, he said it was biased toward conflict. This was before the “Garanimals” news we have today where the tribe member matches the animal label in his shirt with the animal label in the news agency’s pants. Yet, his point is still apt. No conflict – no news. So, highlight the conflict. This is a reason the divisiveness may be over-hyped It exists, but is it as bad as presented? Keith

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    • Yes, conflict sells, and the fact that it sells so well speaks volumes about the public and it’s appetite for conflict, violence, blood ‘n gore. “Garanimals news” … I like that! It’s perfectly apt, too, and even I’m guilty of it, for I steer clear of Fox, NewsMax, and even the Wall Street Journal (in part because they have a paywall). But, although Scott Lawlor accuses me of only perusing the New York Times and The Washington Post, the truth is that I use some 40 news outlets on a daily basis, some domestic, others from the UK and Germany. I think the divisiveness in this country is about as bad as presented, BUT I think that’s the case BECAUSE of the media, or at least some of it.

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  5. Forget unbiased coverage Jill. It’s all politics again.
    If The Whitehouse announced ten-ton asteroid was heading straight for Earth there would be a strident denial from the Right, or claims it had been engineered by Biden.
    Going back to the Covid programmes, we’ve seen it here in Europe. It is difficult not to discern a post-Brexit ill-feeling over mainland European governments not wishing to be seen using a ‘British’ vaccine AstraZeneca.
    Darwinian interludes abound.

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    • You are so right about that! And worse yet, half the fools in this country would believe the claims of the Right.

      Yes, the AstraZeneca situation was similar, with only a small number of cases involving blood clots. I wondered at the time if the EU might be playing it up to “punish” the UK for leaving without saying goodbye.

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        • I would have guessed that the pandemic would have brought people closer, a common enemy, shared interest in defeating it, etc. But the reality is that in both your country and mine, it has done the exact opposite. Sigh.

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          • Denial Jill.
            There are always folk who do not like to admit that there is something which they and their leaders cannot control. They would even immerse themselves in convoluted conspiracy blabberings than accept that Humanity’s existence on this planet, like every other species is conditional on other factors far more powerful. It frightens them too, for in their instinctual very primordial recesses they know that to be so.

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      • If I go out into the garden, pick up a stone and let go of it, it falls to the ground. That is a fact, a truth.
        Now report that in a newspaper and they will speculate on:
        A. Why I did it.
        B. What type of stone it was.
        C. The political reasoning behind it.
        D. And anything else they think might sell the paper
        (Apparently that’s called ‘a slow news day’)

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        • Or, I might say that perhaps you had something sticky on your hands and the stone did not, in fact, fall to the ground but is still in your hand! Sorry … just have to play devil’s advocate every now and then! 😁 But yes, to your point, that is how it works, and unfortunately about half the people aren’t curious or bright enough to question things and do a bit of digging for answers.

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                  • Naturally there are groups who do claim the BBC is biased. These being the ones who do not like the news the BBC is giving out with; quite the little MAGA in their attitudes.
                    They would do well to broaden their horizons.
                    Though I would prefer if they did not use slo-mo, or the speedy alternative clips in their features or the irritating endless five second loop behind the news presenters during a headline. I prefer thus the radio or BBCi.
                    Still the most dependable.

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                • I haven’t paid much attention of late, but one of my UK friends, who is a decent guy with liberal leanings (Gary) has been critical of the BBC for about the past year now. I welcome your opinion, for I had all but stopped using them as a source.

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                  • The problem for folk, Keith, is that outlets do not consistently give them the news they want to hear.
                    Now one of the complaints is that the BBC is biased to the government. Well the BBC is telling folk what the government is doing and I think what gets some folk is that there is no hint of condemnation. But that is not the BBC’s remit, that is the remit of the newspapers who have their agendas. The BBC tells you what is going on, and leaves you to make up your own judgement.
                    True there are many flaws, I despair of the ‘pop’ culture approach to TV presentations, but there again:
                    Where do you go to find out what is going on in other small nations?
                    Their investigative programmes on the radio are without compare.
                    Their 6.30pm humour spot on Radio4 brims with satire as do some of their TV versions (in the latter a bit too self-congratulatory).
                    I understand that after ten years of conservative governments, Brexit and Boris Johnson that liberal and left-wing folk are angry and have a nascent urge to want the news read out as they see it.
                    However, that is not how a democracy works….and you can be sure several million folk certain that this government is doing things correctly would be howling if the news was presented the way the liberal and left wanted it.
                    In short they are not going to get their version of Tucker Carson.
                    Read the headlines, absorbed the content and make your own judgement. Do not blame the messenger.

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              • Thanks Keith! Yes, it would be lovely if they labelled their words as either fact, fiction, conjecture, or opinion, but … then they might not have as many followers, yes? Sigh.

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