The Media Today

How major media outlets screwed up the vaccine ‘breakthrough’ story

August 2, 2021

Late Thursday, the Washington Post landed what looked like a big scoop: the paper obtained an unpublished slide presentation from inside the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggesting that the Delta variant of the coronavirus spreads as easily as chickenpox, and that fully vaccinated people who become infected with the variant may be able to pass it on in a way similar to unvaccinated people who become infected. (The slides were based in part on data about a COVID outbreak linked to Provincetown, Massachusetts; on Friday, the CDC published that data.) Although “breakthrough” infections in vaccinated people are rare, and it’s even rarer that they result in hospitalization or death, major news organizations sometimes missed this crucial context as they rushed to confirm the Post’s story and spit it out via headlines and push alerts. A tweet from the New York Times—“The Delta variant is as contagious as chickenpox and may be spread by vaccinated people as easily as the unvaccinated, an internal CDC report said”—came in for particularly sharp criticism. “VACCINATED PEOPLE DO NOT TRANSMIT THE VIRUS AT THE SAME RATE AS UNVACCINATED PEOPLE,” Ben Wakana, a communications staffer for the White House’s coronavirus response team, shot back. “IF YOU FAIL TO INCLUDE THAT CONTEXT YOU’RE DOING IT WRONG.”

The White House wasn’t done with its media criticism. Two senior officials told CNN’s Oliver Darcy that the Biden administration had been frustrated not only by coverage of the CDC slides, but also by the broader media focus on breakthroughs; per Darcy, the White House has even reached out to major outlets to urge a course correction. “The media’s coverage doesn’t match the moment,” one of the officials said. “It has been hyperbolic and frankly irresponsible in a way that hardens vaccine hesitancy.” Such criticism wasn’t limited to the administration: Justin Amash, a former Republican (and Libertarian) lawmaker, echoed it (blaming the White House for good measure), as did Peter Meijer, a Republican who succeeded Amash in Congress. Meijer took aim, in particular, at an NBC headline declaring that “at least 125,000 fully vaccinated Americans have tested positive” for COVID; the fact that this figure represents less than 0.08 percent of fully vaccinated Americans was relegated to a subheading. Other journalists also tore into NBC. Nate Silver, of the data-journalism site FiveThirtyEight, shared a tweet in which NBC’s Ken Dilanian touted his network’s “exclusive,” adding the zinger: “EXCLUSIVE (must credit @NateSilver538) *At least 35,000,000 unvaccinated Americans have tested positive for Covid. *Ken should take a course in statistics.”

Related: Getting the ‘vaccine mandates’ story right

Those readers who made it through a full story on the CDC data often found a greater degree of nuance. But critics noted that the problems with the coverage ran much deeper than its toplines. Silver, for one, expressed skepticism about the methodology and representativeness of the Provincetown study, and took news outlets to task for failing to emphasize its “several major caveats.” David Wallace-Wells, of New York, argued that coverage of the CDC’s slides not only elided key context but also “the most hopeful and encouraging facts about the Delta surge,” such as its decreased mortality risk and (so far, at least) quick peak and decline in countries with high levels of vaccination. James Hamblin, a writer and medical doctor, took issue with the way the slides became public in the first place. News outlets generally framed them as “a set of leaked revelations from ‘unpublished internal documents’ about ‘just how dangerous the delta variant really is,’” Hamblin wrote—which is true, but also misleading. “I hesitate to even call this a leak because that implies a trove of classified secrets; it’s more of a document that’s not written for an audience other than public-health officials, nor finalized enough to warrant publication.”

According to Mediaite, White House officials believe that major outlets have been hyping stories like the CDC slides “for eyeballs”—part of a bid to rectify a post-Trump ratings slump. You needn’t be quite as cynical as the officials to recognize a basic truth here; the hype may simply have reflected the diverse incentives that are baked into the modern news pipeline, from reporting stories to advertising them in a crowded online marketplace. In terms of reporting incentives, the appearance of a new narrative around vaccine efficacy may have driven some of the hype—though as several critics noted, the slides didn’t really contain much in the way of confirmed new information. Basic innumeracy could also have played its part. As Matt Gertz, of Media Matters for America, put it, “journalists, like most people, often including myself, do not have a firm handle on statistical reasoning.” 

My hunch is that all of the above factors likely contributed to the botched coverage to some extent. Perhaps the biggest problem, though, was less innumeracy than uncertainty. As I wrote last week, when it comes to contextualizing the breakthrough-infection problem, there isn’t a centralized repository of data documenting its scale, since the CDC moved, in May, to stop monitoring all such cases and focus only on the small subset that preceded hospitalization and death. The NBC tally mentioned above, and others like it, draw on patchworks of state-level data; nonetheless, the lack of a central source has created a void that anecdotes—and small-ish studies, like the one out of Provincetown—have filled. (Even a rigorous central repository, of course, would face limitations, such as low testing rates among vaccinated people with no COVID symptoms; thanks to its narrower focus, the CDC has better data establishing the rareness of severe outcomes in breakthrough cases, and outlets like CNN have done a good job of putting it into perspective.) And, as critics of the media’s slides coverage acknowledged, the CDC helped in other ways to create a vacuum around them. The agency could have published its data before—not three days after—changing its mask guidance for vaccinated people, and before the data appeared in partial form in the pages of a national newspaper. Ironically, the slides obtained by the Post were titled: “Improving communications around vaccine breakthrough and vaccine effectiveness.”

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Last week wouldn’t be the first time that the CDC has allowed confusion to pool at a key point of the pandemic. The agency’s failures, however, do not absolve the journalists who have channeled this confusion into their copy. As I wrote last week, the pandemic has always been a devilishly hard story to cover, and this moment might be the most complicated yet. But we’ve long understood the vital stakes of clarity around the vaccines, and on those terms, some of last week’s coverage was shockingly reckless. It was also, at least to me, a little surprising—US media coverage of vaccines has not been perfect, by any means, but mainstream sources have generally been very bullish about their effectiveness and the importance of getting vaccinated, especially compared to outlets in some other countries with comparable rates of vaccination. That’s not to say that journalists should be salespeople—there are complex nuances around vaccine efficacy; indeed, media bullishness may have exacerbated the problems we’re seeing in coverage now, by making breakthrough infections seem like a scary new development rather than a statistical inevitability. Still, it is our job to situate clear public goods as such. Some of the coverage of the CDC data fell a very long way short of that standard.

Below, more on the pandemic:

  • Mass. panic: A Post headline stating that three quarters of the people infected in the Provincetown outbreak were fully vaccinated was among those to come in for heavy criticism online; Gertz, for instance, pointed out that “Provincetown has one of the highest vaccination rates in the country,” and that “as vaccination rates increase the percentage of cases that are in vaccinated people NECESSARILY increases.” Alex Morse, the town manager in Provincetown, also weighed in, noting that of the nine hundred cases related to the outbreak, there were no deaths and only seven hospitalizations. “The outbreak is contained,” Morse wrote, “and Provincetown is safe.” (The Post later added to its headline that few of the breakthroughs required hospitalization.)
  • Misinformation: Sheera Frenkel and Tiffany Hsu, of the Times, explore the role that local news outlets—from shadowy conservative-funded outfits to affiliates of major TV networks—have played in spreading vaccine misinformation. So-called superspreaders of vaccine misinformation “have appeared in articles in local publications or as guests on local radio shows and podcasts,” Frenkel and Hsu write. “Some of their articles are regularly published by small-town newspapers or they are quoted as experts.”
  • Times insider?: Last week, major companies—including, in the media world, the Post—started to impose vaccine rules on their workforces ahead of office returns scheduled for later in the year. On Friday, the Times indefinitely postponed its own return to the office, which had been planned for September. The Times’s Lauren Hirsch reports that the paper’s “offices will remain open for those who want to go in voluntarily, with proof of vaccination.” (I wrote about vaccine mandates in Friday’s newsletter.)
  • The Sky’s the limit: Last week, YouTube banned Sky News Australia, a network owned by Rupert Murdoch’s media empire, from posting video to the platform, citing content that breached YouTube’s COVID misinformation policies; YouTube did not specify what Sky had done wrong, but suggested that it had posted videos denying the existence of COVID and encouraging viewers to use unproven drugs against the disease. Sky hit back; CNN has more. Recently, the Daily Telegraph, another Murdoch title in Australia, axed the column of Alan Jones, a conservative commentator who has strongly opposed lockdown measures. Jones continues to host a show on Sky, however, and last week, Murdoch’s company hailed him as “one of Australia’s most accomplished broadcasters.”

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.