The characters of the vaccine story, and the risks of ‘vaccine nationalism’

On Tuesday, the world’s media turned to Britain, the first country to administer a clinically tested and authorized coronavirus vaccine. Coverage was full of local color: Margaret Keenan, a ninety-year-old woman, became the first person to be vaccinated, then she drank a cup of tea. “She’s celebrating by ‘avin’ a spot of tea, a nice cuppa,” MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow said, in an excruciating English accent. (Maddow described Keenan as “very, very British”; the Irish press begged to differ.) William Shakespeare (really) was next in line. He went viral on social media, as did Martin Kenyon, a ninety-one-year-old man who spoke to CNN outside a vaccination center: “I went off and had a rather nasty lunch and came back and they were ready for me.” Kenyon further endeared himself in follow-up interviews—he told The Guardian that he found his viral fame baffling and asked Piers Morgan, “Who are you?”

The vaccine story has always had its star characters—Ugur Sahin and Özlem Türeci, the Turkish-German couple who run BioNTech, for instance, were held up as an immigration success story in an age marked by xenophobia. In recent days, though, the cast has been filled out, as anonymous clinical trial participants and regulators have been replaced by human beings in the public eye. We are now able to witness who is getting vaccinated when, and hear vox pop reactions, as debate about the pecking order has started playing out in news and opinion pages. Contrasting Keenan’s vaccination in Britain with the prospect that Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, may be the first person to get a shot in that country, the Washington Post’s Adam Taylor considered a gulf between the “vulnerable” and the “venerable”; in the US, discussion has mainly revolved around the proper balance between elderly people and essential workers, and how we ought to define the latter group. Some public-health experts have pushed for prisoners to be vaccinated early: “Elected officials must show some backbone by protecting this highly vulnerable population,” Ashish Prashar and DeAnna Hoskins, advocates for judicial reform, argued in NBC’s opinion section, “for both moral and health reasons.” (It will ultimately be up to states to decide, with input from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.) People have been cast, too, as cautionary tales: two British healthcare workers—who were not named, but are understood to have significant histories with allergies—had a bad reaction to the vaccine, and the story was widely hyped, including in the US, even though the details remain murky.

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Now that the vaccine story means covering individuals, reporters should be careful how they handle cases that may not be representative. “Journalism has a tendency or bias toward what’s new and what’s unusual,” Sarah Zhang, a science writer at The Atlantic, recently told my colleague Shinhee Kang. “A very unusual thing can happen in two people. And that is the news story. But it might be very, very rare, so it’s not necessarily relevant to most people.” Although it can be helpful to hear about people’s experiences with the vaccine, focusing on outliers can warp our overall sense of the truth. Even seemingly innocuous interviews can communicate bad information or set a poor example—as the science writer Roxanne Khamsi pointed out, for instance, the viral footage of Shakespeare and Kenyon showed neither man wearing a mask. “Will it spark conspiracy theories when people do get the inoculation and then fall ill because they didn’t take precautions?” she wondered.

And—this week’s exaggerated stereotypes of Britishness notwithstanding—organizing vaccine coverage along national lines can have a dark side. For months, news organizations have portrayed vaccine development as an adversarial process; as Sarah Lazare noted for In These Times, in August, US outlets “have cast the quest for a vaccine as a zero-sum global competition, at times using the language of overt war,” and stoking “fear about geopolitical foes.” That framing exists downstream of politicians’ behavior—recently, Gavin Williamson, Britain’s education minister, said that the UK approved the Pfizer vaccine before the US, France, and others because Britain is “a much better country.” The press has often uncritically amplified national competition rhetoric, including this week, after the New York Times reported that, over the summer, the Trump administration passed up a chance to order more vaccine from Pfizer—a decision that would seem to have put the US behind the European Union in line for additional doses. On the Times’s Daily podcast yesterday, Michael Barbaro called Trump’s choice “pretty strange and bad,” and wondered how the US might “correct” it. “Could the US kind of forcefully take vaccine from Pfizer if it wanted to be extremely nationalistic and say, nobody gets doses outside the US before we get doses?” Barbaro asked. (He didn’t say whether doing so would be morally justified.)

Yesterday, a panel advised the Food and Drug Administration to approve the Pfizer vaccine for emergency use in the US; the FDA is expected to do so imminently. The good news was widely hailed by the press as a breakthrough moment. Which it was, but coverage often neglected to situate the news in international context: the US wasn’t first to this breakthrough and, more importantly, vaccination remains a long way away for people in poorer countries that haven’t yet been able to acquire doses. It’s crucial that journalists describe the vaccine in global terms—because it’s the right thing to do and because, as The Atlantic’s Yasmeen Serhan warned this week in a piece on the dangers of “vaccine nationalism,” global success is in everyone’s self-interest: “If the virus remains endemic anywhere, it will continue to pose a threat everywhere.” Ultimately, the characters of the vaccine story are all just citizens of an interconnected, unequal world who share a pressing need in the face of resource scarcity. Let’s focus more on that commonality, and less on rather nasty lunches.

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Below, more on the pandemic:

  • Side effects: In 2015, Julia Belluz, of Vox, wrote about a lack of coverage of significant vaccine side effects. Major outlets, Belluz argued, mostly ignored warnings that a swine-flu vaccine appeared to be causing narcolepsy in children—a likely overcorrection to their credulous past coverage of Andrew Wakefield, a British doctor who falsely claimed that the triple-shot measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine could cause autism in children. In order to better cover vaccine uncertainty, Belluz advised reporters to be more skeptical of newer vaccines than established ones and to carefully follow the weight of evidence.
  • Obits: A team of recent graduates of the Columbia Journalism School analyzed hundreds of obituaries that have been published this year by news organizations around the world. They found, among other trends, that a disproportionate number of obits were dedicated to men. Ari L. Goldman, a professor at Columbia, writes for CJR that, despite the pandemic’s harm to the news business, the “growth in the number of obituaries has brought new readers, new advertisers, a new sense of purpose to newsrooms, and, in some cases, even a slight increase in circulation.”
  • Centers for Disease Control-Alt-Delete: On Monday, a senior official at the CDC told a House subcommittee that Robert Redfield, the agency’s director, instructed staff to delete an email that Paul Alexander, a political appointee at the Department of Health and Human Services, sent in August aiming to water down scientific reports on the pandemic. Rep. Jim Clyburn, who chairs the subcommittee, said that Redfield’s order may constitute “deliberate efforts by the Trump administration to conceal and destroy evidence” of political meddling. Politico’s Dan Diamond has more.


Other notable stories:

  • Last night, in a televised special on NBC, Time magazine named Joe Biden and Kamala Harris as its joint people of the year. They make “an unlikely partnership: forged in conflict and fused over Zoom, divided by generation, race, and gender,” Time’s Charlotte Alter writes, but they also “share a faith that empathetic governance can restore the solidarity we’ve lost.” Not that Republicans want to let Biden govern; they’re still pushing deranged conspiracies about the vote count. Yesterday, a majority of House Republicans signed on to an embarrassing lawsuit—filed by the attorney general of Texas and backed by his counterparts in seventeen states—aimed at invalidating Biden’s win.
  • Yesterday, Jane Mayer, of the New Yorker, reported on concerns among Senate Democrats that Dianne Feinstein, the eighty-seven-year-old California senator, is “seriously struggling” with cognitive decline, including significant short-term memory loss. Mayer’s story grappled with a sensitive subject—age in public life—that, as Ben Smith, media columnist at the Times, wrote in October, reporters are increasingly having to address given “America’s recent slide toward gerontocracy.” Journalists, Smith wrote, “must get past the taboos and be frank about the normal process of aging.”
  • Earlier this year, Natalie Edwards, a former Treasury Department staffer, pleaded guilty to leaking confidential documents to Jason Leopold, a reporter with BuzzFeed. For CJR, Bill Grueskin reviewed correspondence between Edwards and Leopold that has been filed in court ahead of her sentencing, which is scheduled for January. “The filings show the complex dance that can take place between reporter and source,” Grueskin writes. Edwards’s attorney called the relationship “more nuanced” than is traditional.
  • In 2018, De Correspondent, a Dutch news site, crowdfunded $2.6 million to launch The Correspondent, an English-language counterpart. Last year, the sites’ founders were criticized after they conceded that The Correspondent would not open a newsroom in the US, as they seemed to have promised; now The Correspondent is shutting down entirely after its membership revenue collapsed. Nieman Lab’s Laura Hazard Owen has more.
  • Gannett, America’s biggest newspaper chain, is planning to outsource nearly five hundred business-side jobs to Hyderabad, in India. According to Rick Edmonds, of Poynter, US-based staffers responsible for “paying bills, invoicing customers, preparing monthly summary reports, and reconciling the books” will be laid off in the New Year—but not before training their replacements.
  • Ghada Oueiss, an anchor on Al Jazeera, is suing top Saudi and Emirati officials in a US court, alleging that they used spyware to steal photos from her phone in retaliation against her critical reporting on Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. According to the Financial Times, Oueiss has not provided “concrete proof” that Saudi Arabia directed the hack, pointing instead to the country’s record of harassing reporters and using spyware.
  • On Tuesday, at a court hearing in Alamance County, North Carolina, a judge opted to bar reporters from the room. Officials handcuffed Tom Boney Jr., the publisher of the Alamance News, and escorted him out; the judge told him,  “the courtroom is not closed,” but “is closed to you.” The Raleigh News & Observer has more details.
  • Nieman Lab began publishing its annual list of predictions for journalism in the year to come. Joanne McNeil, author of Lurking, a history of the internet, thinks that newsrooms will start to “push back against Ivy League cronyism”; recruiting reporters from a broader range of educational and class backgrounds, she writes, is essential to improving coverage. (In the summer, Alexandria Neason profiled McNeil for CJR’s magazine.)
  • And finally, a programming note: I’m exhausted, so I’m taking a break from writing this newsletter until mid-January. My wonderful CJR colleagues will take the reins either side of the Christmas break. I’d like to thank all of you for reading during this unimaginable, tragic, fascinating year. Stay safe and well, and I’ll see you in 2021.

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.