Local news outlets should avoid false equivalency in reporting on Covid vaccine

A recent investigative report from NBC News highlighted the danger of our pursuit of false equivalency. 

As the Covid-19 vaccines have started to roll out across America, anti-vaxxers are increasingly getting the kind of mainstream news attention they’ve long sought from local news.

Outlets reporting on the vaccine have described the anti-vaccination activists as advocates for “medical freedom,” or “informed choice,” the same language the movement uses to elude online content moderators and appeal to the mainstream media, the report found

We have an obvious obligation as journalists to report critically on the vaccine, including what is already emerging as a potential risk for people with a history of severe allergic reactions. We also should report on concerns our community members may have about the vaccine. That is our role.

Machinist’s Mate (Nuclear) 1st Class Jason Zeger, assigned to the U.S. Navy’s only forward-deployed aircraft carrier, USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76), receives the COVID-19 vaccine on Commander, Fleet Activities Yokosuka (CFAY). (Art from Flickr)

But anti-vaxxers as a movement do not deserve our attention unchecked. They certainly do not deserve the same weight in our news coverage as scientists and members of our health care organizations. 

Few local news segments featured doctors or public health advocates to counter the anti-vaccination misinformation, according to the NBC investigation. That means the anti-vaxxers, who already have caused serious damage, are getting a pass to oppose the Covid-19 vaccine as we justify including “both sides.”

Just as there are not two sides as to whether masks can prevent the spread of the coronavirus, there are not two sides on science-based reporting on the vaccine. 

Anti-vaxxers are responsible for measles outbreaks in Western countries where the measles virus was previously considered eliminated. We, as journalists, cannot allow them to gain traction on the Covid-19 vaccine, particularly among communities of color that are rightfully suspicious of the vaccine given the long history of experimentation on them against their will.

The anti-vaxxers are taking advantage of the fact that most of our newsrooms do not have the health reporting expertise to question the language they are using. In acting as stenographers and not reporters, we are doing a disservice to our communities in helping them spread a message that has been debunked.

The anti-vax movement started out of unfounded fear that childhood vaccines could lead to autism. They do not. My oldest son is autistic, and I remember someone asked me once if I were scared to vaccinate my middle son. No, I wasn’t. I was more afraid of my infant getting measles before he was old enough to be vaccinated. My uncle died as a toddler of complications from the disease before it was introduced in 1963.

As a war reporter, I saw villages in Afghanistan ravaged by polio, long after most of the world had successfully eradicated the disease. 

I read science-based journalism, and I consider myself an informed parent and medical consumer. You don’t have to be an expert to question.

It’s important that we don’t get bullied into his notion that anti-vaxxers deserve a loud voice in our stories, not if we aren’t willing to question their claims. We can do stories on how the movement is taking advantage of fears in the pandemic. We can do stories about the movement in our communities. But we should not allow them to be “the other side” to stories reporting on the Covid-19 vaccine.

It is not responsible. It is dangerous. It is wrong. 

A version of this story first appeared in Publisher’s Auxiliary, the only national publication serving America’s community newspapers. It is published by the National Newspaper Association. GJR is partnering with Pub Aux to re-print Jackie Spinner’s monthly “Local Matters” column on our website. Spinner is the editor of Gateway Journalism Review. Follow her on Twitter @jackiespinner. 

Share our journalism