Yesterday, President Biden gave a speech at the White House and said that the US is on track to have enough vaccine supply to cover every adult in America by the end of May—a two-month improvement on his administration’s previous timeline. Biden announced that the federal government has taken steps to accelerate the production of Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine, including helping to finalize a deal that will see Merck, a rival pharmaceutical company, manufacture doses. “This is a type of collaboration between companies we saw in World War II,” Biden said, calling them “good corporate citizens.” He also announced plans to get a first dose to every teacher this month. Across the mediasphere, these new developments were hailed as very good news. Some politics-watchers noted that they also reflected smart media management on Biden’s part. Eli Stokols, White House reporter for the LA Times, recalled “how Trump, desperate to win the daily news cycle, said COVID would be gone by Easter, then summer—and kept moving goalposts back.” There’s more benefit, Stokols wrote, in “setting moderate expectations, working to exceed them, and THEN doing the press conference.”
US health officials only approved Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine, which requires just a single dose, last weekend. The greenlighting was also welcomed in much coverage. The Washington Post greeted it, in a push notification, as added “firepower in the fight against the pathogen.” Spencer Bokat-Lindell, an opinion editor at the New York Times, put the new vaccine at the heart of his “case for COVID optimism”; Insider’s Hilary Brueck and Andrew Dunn wrote that it is “probably the best shot,” since it’s relatively easy to administer, works very well in young people, and potentially has lesser side effects than other vaccines. Still, such positivity wasn’t ubiquitous: Ever since Johnson & Johnson reported its trial data, some coverage has emphasized that its vaccine has lower headline efficacy rates than those produced by Pfizer and Moderna. The Post recently reported, under the headline “Johnson & Johnson vaccine deepens concerns over racial and geographic inequities,” that the expected deployment of the new shot to hard-to-reach areas could “drive perceptions of a two-tiered vaccine system, riven along racial or class lines—with marginalized communities getting what they think is an inferior product.” On Sunday, Dr. Anthony Fauci toured the networks and was repeatedly asked what he’d say to Americans who’d rather wait for Pfizer or Moderna shots than get Johnson & Johnson’s; he explained patiently that all three vaccines are very effective and that since they were tested under very different conditions, minute comparisons of efficacy percentages aren’t useful. On Monday, Alex Gorsky, the CEO of Johnson & Johnson, was asked the same question on Today. He stressed that the company’s vaccine, unlike its competitors’, was tested late last year, when COVID was at the peak of its spread, in countries with differing dominant variants. He added that the shot was still completely effective against hospitalization and death.
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These variations in tone, despite the broad underlying positivity of the Johnson & Johnson news, speak to a broader question that I briefly visited a month ago, and that experts and observers have since continued to ask: is the press being unduly pessimistic in its coverage of the pandemic? Late last week, the techno-sociologist Zeynep Tufekci—who has argued repeatedly that the answer is “yes”—made her most detailed case yet in an article for The Atlantic that took aim at various public-health communicators, as well as journalists.
“The steady drumbeat of good news about the vaccines has been met with a chorus of relentless pessimism,” Tufekci wrote. She then outlined five fallacies that, in her view, have consistently bedeviled COVID messaging: the undue fear that advising certain precautions will trigger a false sense of security and widespread reckless behavior; the repetition of inflexible rules at the expense of educating people about mechanisms of transmission, so they can make risk calculations for themselves; misleading media scolding about outdoor activities like going to the beach; excessive absolutism; and “a poor balance between knowledge, risk, certainty, and action”—the framing, for example, that vaccines’ ability to reduce transmission (in addition to infection) remains a scary unknown, when sound reasoning and available evidence suggests they do have this ability, pending the collection of more data. “The public,” Tufekci concluded, “has been offered a lot of misguided fretting over new virus variants, subjected to misleading debates about the inferiority of certain vaccines, and presented with long lists of things vaccinated people still cannot do, while media outlets wonder whether the pandemic will ever end.”
But there is, of course, still ample bad news about the pandemic. As I wrote last week, case and death counts remain objectively very high—yesterday, they again topped fifty-four thousand and one thousand eight hundred, respectively—and optimism about a general decline in rates shouldn’t obscure that gutting human cost. Trump may be gone from the federal government, but state leaders continue to make foolish decisions: yesterday, the governors of Texas and Mississippi moved to roll back mask mandates and other restrictions, defying CDC guidance and offering every news show a fretful counterpoint to the hope of Biden’s vaccine speech. As Ellen Ruppel Shell, a professor of science journalism at Boston University, told me last month, much coverage, in seesawing between good and bad news, has felt “schizophrenic,” and induced whiplash. Yesterday, the Times wrote, in an article on the reopenings, that many Americans “are wondering whether to follow the lure of optimism, or to heed the warnings of health officials who say it’s premature to lift restrictions.”
It’s helpful, instead, to think of such formulations as false dichotomies: health officials are optimistic, but in the long term, more than the short. The pandemic has been marked by a flattening of time—the arrival of March sparked innumerable Twitter jokes about how last March never ended—but time is essential to any assessment of what constitutes good and bad pandemic news. We need constantly to interrogate how our baselines have shifted—not just in terms of what we consider to be high numbers of cases and deaths, but also in more positive contexts. If the overall efficacy of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is worth noting at all, it’s in the sense that a year ago, the breadth of our current vaccine arsenal, and the pace of the rollout, was almost unimaginable; as James T. McDeavitt, of Baylor, told the Times last week, if Johnson & Johnson’s shot had been authorized before Pfizer’s and Moderna’s, “everybody would be doing handstands and back flips and high-fives.” Time also has a distorting effect when we look forward. The light at the end of the tunnel illuminates how much tunnel we still must navigate, which creates a set of expectations different from the one-day-then-the-next grind of the past year.
The best thing we can do to guard against whiplash is to situate optimism and pessimism not as contrasting poles of a coverage debate, but compatible—indeed, unavoidable—facets of this same everything story we’re all still living. As Tufekci put it, “effective communication requires a sense of proportion—distinguishing between due alarm and alarmism; warranted, measured caution and doombait; worst-case scenarios and claims of impending catastrophe.” In her view, such balance has a practical benefit: encouraging “people to dream about the end of this pandemic by talking about it more, and more concretely,” she wrote, “can help strengthen people’s resolve to endure whatever is necessary for the moment.” Yesterday, during his vaccine speech, Biden said that the Johnson & Johnson news is “a huge step in our effort to beat this pandemic, but I have to be honest with you: This fight is far from over.” Increasingly, and may be a better word than but.
Below, more on the pandemic:
- “The looming vaccine story”: Oliver Darcy, a media reporter at CNN, writes that with Biden’s new timeline for supply, the vaccine story is about to enter a new phase. “Stories about limited doses and the need for new approvals of new vaccines are about to be a relic of the past,” he writes. “Instead, the story looming on the horizon is about vaccine hesitancy and skepticism.” Dr. Jonathan Reiner, a CNN medical analyst, told Darcy that coverage should “start talking about how being vaccinated changes someone’s outlook and daily life,” and center the stories of vaccinated people from communities of color.
- What the numbers don’t show: For Scientific American, Amy Yee takes aim at the “myth,” stoked by widely-reported polling data, that the pandemic has been less hard financially on Asian-Americans than on Black, Latinx, and Native Americans. Working-class Asian-Americans, Yee writes, “are woefully neglected by researchers, academics and pollsters” and consequently overlooked by the press and policymakers. “Coverage about struggling Asian Americans and unemployment are a fraction of similar coverage about other racial groups,” Yee writes.
- Fatphobia and the press: On The Takeaway, Rebeca Ibarra spoke with Virginia Sole-Smith, a journalist who has covered weight stigma, about the role of the press in amplifying fatphobic narratives before and during the pandemic. Early on, researchers noticed a correlation between weight and COVID outcomes; “they were not saying that higher body weights cause the severe COVID… but that’s not how it got reported in the media,” Sole-Smith said. “It was presented as a causal relationship, which is not scientifically true. That’s when we started to see negative bias against high body weights really spike.”
- The media-business angle: For the Daily Beast, Sophia June profiles four alt-weeklies that figured out how to survive the pandemic, despite early predictions that it would spell their financial demise. “While so much news coverage of alt-weeklies has eulogized them before they’re gone, perhaps the real story is one of resilience,” June writes. “Because for all the stories about the end of alt-weeklies, there are many that, against all odds, have survived. In true alt-weekly edge, it’s a stubborn, punk refusal to let go.”
- The press-freedom angle: The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China surveyed its members about worsening press freedom in the country. Their responses highlighted ways that the government used the pandemic to hinder reporting. “Journalists who sought to report in Wuhan, the city which reported the first cases of COVID-19, said they were harassed by police and forced to delete images or footage gathered in the course of reporting,” the Wall Street Journal reports. “Others said authorities forced them to take an unreasonable number of COVID-19 tests or were threatened with quarantine—efforts they said were intended to disrupt reporting.”
Other notable stories:
- Yesterday, Biden declassified his intelligence agencies’ conclusion that Russia’s FSB was behind the poisoning, last year, of the opposition leader and sometime journalist Alexei Navalny; Biden also sanctioned Russian officials, though he stopped short of personally punishing Vladimir Putin or senior oligarchs close to him—echoing his decision, last week, not to directly sanction Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for the killing of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Elsewhere, Terrell Jermaine Starr argues, for the Post, that the international community must reckon frankly with Navalny’s past racism, after Amnesty International cited it as cause to strip him of his status as a “prisoner of conscience.” Starr disagreed with Amnesty’s decision, but “Russians—and the outside world—have a right to know precisely whom we’re dealing with.”
- In 2018, reporters at the Times obtained a draft of an investigative report that CBS commissioned from two law firms following allegations of sexual abuse against Les Moonves, the network’s former CEO. Now William D. Cohan and Joe Pompeo report, for Vanity Fair, that CBS and one of the law firms involved, Covington & Burling, paid out a multi-million-dollar settlement to an individual who complained that the leak to the Times violated witnesses’ rights to confidentiality. The leak triggered another internal investigation; per Vanity Fair, “it is believed that an associate at Covington was behind the leak, although why an associate would have taken such a dramatic step is not clear.”
- Gideon Lichfield, the editor of MIT Technology Review, is leaving to become global editorial director at Wired, replacing Nicholas Thompson (albeit with a new title). In other media-jobs news, NPR is promoting Kenya Young, the executive producer of Morning Edition, to managing editor for collaborative journalism, working with member stations. And Kayleigh McEnany is now a Fox News contributor, because of course. A Fox source told the Daily Beast that McEnany is “a mini-Goebbels” and called her hiring “disgusting.”
- Researchers at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism found that nearly half of digital subscribers to local news outlets are “zombie readers”—meaning that they use their subscription less than once per month, despite paying for it. “Concern is growing about this problem,” the researchers write, “because even though the living dead may still pay for local news, they seem like a weak foundation to build a future on.”
- In its final months, the Trump administration ordered the US arm of Al Jazeera, which is funded by Qatar, to register as a foreign agent; Al Jazeera refused to comply, casting the order as a geopolitical maneuver. Lachlan Markay reports, for Axios, that Al Jazeera’s recent launch of a right-wing platform for US viewers has raised fresh questions about its status, which could now depend on Biden’s broader approach to the Middle East.
- In May, Facebook will launch its News tab in Germany—but Axel Springer, the German media behemoth that publishes Bild and Die Welt, won’t offer its content for inclusion, calling it “problematic” that platforms are seeking “on the one hand to position themselves as news media, and on the other to fob off publishers with inadequate remuneration.” (In 2019, Andrew Curry profiled Axel Springer for CJR’s world issue.)
- Yesterday, The Times of London reported damaging allegations about Meghan Markle, including that she bullied royal aides, and that she wore earrings gifted to her by the Saudi Crown Prince at a formal dinner just three weeks after the murder of Khashoggi. Meghan’s lawyers accused the royal household of using The Times to smear Meghan with false claims ahead of her and Prince Harry’s forthcoming interview with Oprah.
- Yesterday, three women who worked for Enikass TV, in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, were shot dead on their way home from work; officials suspect that the killings were linked to the Taliban. (The Taliban denied involvement.) Recently, the United Nations published a report drawing attention to the increasingly targeted killing of journalists in the country.
- And the BBC World Service apologized after it aired an interview with Senator Cory Booker that was actually an interview with an impostor. The broadcaster apologized to Booker, and said it had been taken in by “what appears to be a deliberate hoax.”
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Update: This post has been updated to clarify Al Jazeera’s relationship with Qatar.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.