What the Pfizer-approval story says about our media ecosystem

In recent weeks, amid broader questions about the surge of the Delta coronavirus variant in the US and the vaccination campaign to counter it, journalists have periodically pressed health officials as to when the Food and Drug Administration might fully approve the vaccines, which had been administered, up to now, under emergency-use authorization. Two weeks ago, ABC’s George Stephanopoulos asked Francis Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health, whether the FDA “needs to be doing more”; Collins assured him that the agency is working “twenty-four seven” on the approval process, then stressed that there is already “incredible evidence” for the vaccines’ safety and effectiveness, and urged the unvaccinated to get a shot immediately. “If you’re on the fence, get off the fence,” Collins said. “Go.” Late last week, the New York Times reported that the FDA hoped to approve Pfizer and BioNTech’s vaccine for US adults as soon as Monday, accelerating its self-imposed Labor Day deadline, and that was exactly what happened. The approval was a huge story across the mainstream media landscape, knocking the crisis in Afghanistan off the top of many news homepages and TV bulletins. “We begin tonight with a major breakthrough in a different type of forever war,” Joy Reid said on Monday, at the top of her show on MSNBC—“the war against COVID-19.”

Stories about the approval usually cited two main reasons for its importance: the possibility that it might assuage the concerns of some vaccine skeptics, and the extra cover it would give employers to mandate vaccination among their staff. (A number of institutions, including the US military, were quick to make use of the cover.) Some reporters and commentators balanced the two reasons; others emphasized one over the other. Reid described the approval as “a shift from a vaccine push to a vaccine must.” Those who focused on the first reason often cited recent polling, from the Kaiser Family Foundation, suggesting that around three in ten unvaccinated Americans might be more likely to get a shot if it were formally approved. Others cautioned against placing too much faith in that figure, noting Kaiser’s own caveat that it might be “a proxy for general safety concerns” since a large majority of unvaccinated respondents to its poll either thought the vaccines were approved already or didn’t know one way or another. “The news of the full authorization would seem to be likely to push familiarity with that status higher,” Aaron Blake wrote, in the Washington Post. “From there, it’s about whether that actually makes the difference for enough people. Being ‘more likely’ to get the vaccine doesn’t mean you’ll do it.” Alison Buttenheim, an expert on vaccine hesitancy at the University of Pennsylvania, told the Times that we’re likely talking here about “a vanishingly small number of people in real life.”

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In general, the coverage of the approval channeled a contradiction of sorts. The story is premised on institutional credibility—if the FDA weren’t a trustworthy messenger, its approval would be meaningless. And yet the main reasons the story matters are inextricably bound up with persistently high rates of vaccine skepticism in America, a phenomenon that is itself inextricable from widespread distrust of credible institutions; what’s more, the reasons pull in opposite directions, offering a carrot and wielding a stick. This is not to say that the approval isn’t a big story, or to criticize the coverage. Nor are the contradictions here irreconcilable—indeed, they could actually help the press to tease out the diversity of fears and motivations among vaccine skeptics, some of whom may respond better to carrots and others to sticks. As I’ve written before, coverage of vaccine skeptics has sometimes had an unhelpful flattening effect—tarring them all with the same brush of irrational, Trump-loving crazy.

Nonetheless, the contradictions here do illuminate some truths about our information environment. One has to do with how different outlets respond to institutional cues. The same mainstream outlets that treated the FDA’s verdict as big news in and of itself have also, by and large, made it clear from the beginning that the vaccines are safe and effective, and generally serve audiences that are already vaccinated at higher rates than the country at large (and, on the whole, are probably more likely to trust government authorities, especially under President Biden). By contrast, outlets, notably on the right, whose coverage has been more skeptical of the vaccines were never likely to do a U-turn based on the word of Biden’s FDA. According to CNN’s Brian Stelter, Fox News covered the approval story much less than CNN and MSNBC on Monday—and some network voices who did talk about it brought a skeptical tone, including by renewing their opposition to vaccine mandates. Laura Ingraham, a host, said that Biden was using the approval “to take away your rights”; Marty Makary, a guest, suggested that the administration had manipulated the approval and other COVID stories to distract attention from Afghanistan. “They can sit here and confirm and make official whatever they want,” Dana Loesch, a right-wing radio host, said, on a Fox show hosted by Jesse Watters. “It doesn’t change the fact that there are people who have questions.”

At one point, two Fox hosts asked within a minute of each other whether the FDA’s decision was “rushed” and “what took so long?” The dissonance was widely mocked online. But it spoke, in a sense, to another apparent contradiction in coverage of the approval—the FDA has, in fact, moved both quickly and slowly, depending on how you define those terms. Again, different commentators emphasized different definitions, with some stressing that the FDA accelerated its processes compared to how long it typically takes to approve a vaccine, while others argued that it didn’t go fast enough to meet this moment of acute crisis; David Leonhardt, of the Times, wrote—in an article headlined “FDA, not FDR”—that “American history is rich with examples of government officials doing what the FDA decided not to do in this case: overhaul their process in a time of crisis.” The debate is a new iteration of one that has recurred in media coverage throughout the pandemic: the proper balance between rigor and urgency. It’s another example, too, of scientific processes that would normally not attract much media attention playing out under a spotlight of harsh scrutiny—changing public perceptions of routine procedures and, sometimes, altering incentives for decision-makers. Progress that looks quick in the cool light of history can look glacial in the glare of the twenty-four-hour cable news cycle.

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The historic speed of the approval arguably makes it an important story regardless of its immediate impact on vaccine skepticism. But the feeling persists that, in a country with a more responsible, better-adjusted information ecosystem—and much higher levels of early vaccine uptake—the approval would probably not have been seen as that big a deal. The mainstream news media is part of that ecosystem, even if it isn’t responsible for its worst ills. The approval hasn’t been the only FDA story in the news this week—the agency also responded to reports that some Americans have been taking ivermectin, an anti-parasitic drug that is typically given to livestock, to ward off the coronavirus. “You are not a horse,” the FDA wrote in a tweet. “You are not a cow. Seriously, y’all. Stop it.” The eye-catching putdown echoed, predictably, through many a headline—offering a stark contrast to the institutional sobriety of the approval story. It was yet another jarring tonal clash in an era that has been full of them.

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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.