The news media deserves some of the blame for vaccine hesitancy

By Kent R. Kroeger (Source:, January 3, 2022)

[Author’s Note: The opinions and errors found in this essay are mine alone. And do not make personal health or financial decisions based on this essay.]

“If you don’t read the newspaper, you are uniformed. If you do, you’re misinformed.”

— Mark Twain

Back in September, wearied by five plus years of analyzing the destructive synergisms that define American politics and the national news media, I decided to take a few months off from following our nation’s dysfunction.

I needed a break. (We all do.)

So, I stopped watching cable TV news, avoided social media, limited my news consumption to the online versions of the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, and, for entertainment purposes, occasionally indulged in my favorite political podcasters like Krystal Ball and Saagar Enjeti (Breaking Points), Kyle Kulinski, Ben Shapiro and Jimmy Dore.

Though unverified through medical professionals, I believe my systolic blood pressure has gone down ten points over this period. And this is despite the real pressures of inflation, raising a teenage son, keeping a marriage intact, and limiting job stress, all while navigating the pandemic.

As to why one might benefit from avoiding the mainstream news media, my hunch is that its daily offering of divisive, anxiety-inducing content is a public health hazard. That is how they attract audiences and make money: Keep everyone uncertain and agitated. And this is the goal whether the media outlet leans left, right or towards the middle on the political spectrum.

In the end, this business model is destructive to the physical and mental health of our nation, and there is evidence to support such a contention.

Vaccine hesitancy among Republicans and conservatives

Nowhere is the deadliness of misinformation more apparent than the stubbornly large percentage of American adults who continue to resist getting vaccinated against COVID-19.

According to the New York Times COVID-19 vaccination tracker, 27 percent are not fully vaccinated, and 14 percent of American adults have not received even one jab. While it is true that relatively low vaccinations rates exist among Black (67%), less-educated (68%) and younger adults (67%), the lowest vaccination rate is among Republicans (59%), according to the Kaiser Foundation.

But the popular myth about vaccine hesitancy is that it is mainly the product of misinformation about the safety of the COVID-19 vaccines being propagated by conservative media outlets such as the Fox News Channel. To be fair, the Fox News has provided a large, influential platform for vaccine skeptics to plant seeds doubt about vaccine safety and effectiveness. But even The Washington Post acknowledged last summer that Facebook is a more powerful source for vaccine misinformation than Fox News.

However, I offer a more essential cause of the disproportionate level of vaccine hesitancy among Republican and conservative Americans: a deep and understandable distrust of the mainstream media that has repeatedly omitted, exaggerated, and misrepresented key facts to the detriment of conservatives and their values.

Do you need examples? Here is just a small sampling from over the past six years (in no particular order):

  1. The January 6th Capitol protests and misrepresentation of Capitol Officer Brian Sicknick’s death (which would lead the New York Times to walk back their original narrative about his death being the direct result of a physical assault by pro-Trump protestors),
  2. Cable TV news networks declared the May 2020 George Floyd protests as ‘mostly peaceful’ as businesses and cars burned in the background,
  3. Misreporting key facts on the Trump January 2021 phone call to Georgia Vote Fraud Investigator prior to the state’s special Senate election,
  4. Failure to acknowledge the active debate in the scientific community over the SARS-CoV-2 lab leak versus natural origin hypotheses,
  5. Russiagate (the specific media inaccuracies over which are too many to list here, but journalist Glenn Greenwald made an early attempt),
  6. Douma chemical attack in Syria, where reporting by award-winning journalist Aaron Mate (The Grayzone) significantly called into question mainstream reporting on the attack,
  7. Failure to report the policy origins and undercount of the disproportionately larger number of nursing home deaths in New York during the early months of the COVID-19,
  8. Failure to cover the Hunter Biden laptop story during the 2020 election campaign, which would lead some news outlets (notably NPR) in late September 2021 (!) to correct their original assertion that the story had no merit,
  9. Media reports of Trump ordering tear gas to clear a protest crowd that were subsequentlycontradicted by an Inspector General report on the event,
  10. Months before the 2020 election, news outlets claimed Russians were paying a bounty to the Taliban to kill US soldiers (and Trump did nothing about it, they also reported); in truth, the bounty story came from a highly unreliable intelligence source that even U.S. intelligence has since disavowed; media retractions of this story would only come after the 2020 election.
  11. Rolling Stone’s story on Ivermectin overdoses overwhelming the emergency rooms of an Oklahoma hospital at the expense of gunshot victims was utterly false and would need to be retracted days after its initial publication,
  12. New York Times grossly overstated the number of child fatalities for COVID-19,
  13. CNN and other news/entertainment outlets reported that podcaster Joe Rogan took horse de-wormer for COVID-19;when, in fact, he took a doctor-prescribed, human-safe amount of the drug Ivermectin,
  14. The Washington Post revised an article and deleted the Twitter post promoting it after saying the November 2021 Christmas parade massacre in Waukesha, Wisconsin was “caused by an SUV.”
  15. Coverage of the Kyle Rittenhouse trial included numerous mistakes, critical omissions (e.g., rarely mentioning that all parties involved were white) and smears (e.g., Rittenhouse referred to as a ‘white supremacist’ without supporting evidence).

Occasionally inaccurate reporting is an unavoidable part of aggressive journalism. It happens. And, God knows, Fox News and other conservative news outlets have misrepresented facts due to their own partisan biases and sometimes careless inattention to detail and complexity.

However, there is something telling and deeply ominous when “trusted” news outlets like the New York Times and The Washington Post so consistently err in one ideological direction when they do make errors. I don’t believe this is random chance. It is the result of a long-developing, pervasive news media bias in favor of establishment-friendly opinions and narratives at the expense of critics to that establishment. (If you want evidence of this growing media bias, here are some good places to start: Herehere and here.)

Distrust of elites drives vaccine hesitancy

Over the past months I talked directly to unvaccinated people I met at my favorite local watering hole (and whose customers are largely working class people from western New Jersey and eastern Pennsylvania). It was not a scientific probability sample, but it served the purpose of collecting examples of how people articulate their hesitancy to get one of the COVID-19 vaccines.

My first observation was that most people at this small pub were vaccinated. Still, over the course of a few weeks, I talked to no less than a dozen unvaccinated people and queried them on their reasons for staying unvaccinated. Their responses almost universally included these two themes:

(1) Lack of trust in what they hear in the news media from media, political and science elites,

(2) A belief that they are healthy and would prefer the risks of COVID-19 than the unknown risks of the vaccines.

Young males, who were roughly half of my convenience sample, were particularly likely to cite their good health as a reason not to be vaccinated, and also would frequently express concern that the vaccines could harm their fertility. In fact, Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers recently offered this fertility argument as one of the reasons he didn’t get vaccinated.

[The peer-reviewed research I have found on the subject of COVID-19 vaccines and male fertility has found no evidence of increases in male infertility as the result of getting a COVID-19 vaccine.]

But it is the first reason (‘lack of trust’) that I suspect drives most vaccine hesitancy in the U.S., particularly the interrelationship between someone’s trust in the news media, politicians, and science.

The 2019 American National Elections Pilot Study, administered by researchers from the University of Michigan and Stanford University, offers evidence that people’s level of trust in science is primarily founded on their level of trust in journalists and the news media.

When someone’s trust in the news media is undermined — such as, when they believe the news media is continually deceiving them for partisan and social class reasons — trust in science suffers.

In Figure 1 (below), the standardized regression coefficients from a linear regression model using the 2019 ANES data are reported. The dependent variable is a 12-point scale indicating a person’s level of trust in science. Among the significant independent variables in the model, the most significant factor associated with a person’s trust in science is a person’s favorability towards journalists. Also interesting is that being Black or Hispanic— independent of political ideology or attitudes towards the news media or — is significantly associated with distrust in science.

Figure 1: What factors are associated with a person’s trust in science?

Similarly, before the lack of trust in science among some Americans is blamed on Fox News and Republicans, it must be explained why favorability towards journalists is highly related to trust in science, regardless of someone’s political ideology, support for Donald Trump, level of education, sex, or race/ethnicity.

My hypothesis is that, given the mainstream news media (including Fox News) serves such a narrow spectrum of Americans, drops in trust in journalists and, by extension, science were inevitable.

Our national news outlets represent the priorities, opinions and biases of rich, white liberals. These news sources are not objective. Worse yet, they systematically misinform anyone who digests their daily product.

And this central bias in the mainstream news media has not gone unnoticed by conservatives, particularly among the working-class who are so often a punching bag for news media elites.

One of the ugliest (and most socially destructive) arguments finding popularity in the national news media’s coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic is the suggestion that people who aren’t vaccinated should not be given the same priority for medical care as those who have vaccinated.

The once-funny, now drearily partisan Jimmy Kimmel (host of ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel Live!) exemplified this toxic kind of thinking in a recent monologue:

Kimmel opined on his show:

“The number of new cases is up more than 300 percent from a year ago. Doctor Fauci said that if hospitals get any more overcrowded they’re going to have to make some very tough choices about who gets an ICU bed. That choice doesn’t seem so tough to me — vaccinated person having a heart attack, yes, come right on in. We’ll take care of you. Unvaccinated guy who gobbled horse goo, rest in peace wheezy.”

Stories of families unable to get their sick parent or child admitted to a hospital ICU ward because those beds are filled with unvaccinated COVID-19 patients permeated the news media last fall.

Those stories are real and tragic…and, yes, I believe the unvaccinated need to understand how their health care decisions are, writ large, impacting their communities.

Yet, there is something seriously wrong if a consensus of Americans think the vaccine hesitant deserve the death penalty for their personal decision regarding vaccines. People accepting the COVID-19 deaths of thousands of Americans in “Trump” country as their ‘just desserts’ need to rethink their values.

More compassionate Americans understand that health care should never be rationed based on background or past behavior. President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act (ACA) is predicated on that premise.

John Barro, senior editor and columnist at Business Insider, spelled out this ACA feature on the Rising podcast last year:

“One of the key ideas behind the Affordable Care Act (ACA) — and by certain laws that led up to the Affordable Care Act, like the HIPA law — was about making sure that people with pre-existing conditions could get health insurance at the same price as people who don’t have those conditions. And the reason that we focus on having on having those rules is otherwise it can become very unaffordable for people to get health insurance if they have previously had cancer or if they have diabetes or they have other pre-existing conditions.

Our view is that health insurance is not like other insurance products. It is not like auto insurance or homeowners insurance, where, if you live on the ocean you’re going to pay more for hurricane coverage. If you have a swimming pool you’re going to pay more for liability. If you’ve got speeding tickets you pay more for auto insurance.

Health insurance laws are structured to ensure availability to as many people as possible. We have fought to de-link pricing from health risk.”

Today, too many Democrats and liberals are happy to discard the ACA’s central pricing rationale so that they can punish people they consider ‘ignorant’ and ‘deplorable.’ “Rest in peace wheezy,” sneers Kimmel.

Ironically, working-class conservatives aren’t the only ones burying themselves in ignorance regarding COVID-19. Democrats and liberals have their own intellectual blind spots on the subject matter.

The poor understanding of COVID-19’s hospitalization risk among liberals and Democrats

Coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic by the left- and center-leaning news and entertainment outlets has led to large reservoirs of misinformation residing among liberals and Democrats.

A few months ago on Jimmy Kimmel Live!, Bill Maher, host of HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher, made a surprisingly sharp observation about the national media’s unmistakable penchant for fostering undue fear about the COVID-19 pandemic:

“I have to cite a survey that was in the New York Times, which is a liberal paper, so they weren’t looking for this answer. The question was: “What do you think the chances are that you would have to go to the hospital if you got COVID?

The Democrats thought that (probability) was way higher than did Republicans. The answer is between one and five percent. Yet, 41 percent of Democrats thought it was over a 50 percent chance and another 28 percent thought it was between 20 and 49 percent — so 70 percent of Democrats thought it was way higher than it really was.

Liberal media has to take a little responsibility for scaring the (bleep) out of people.”

This overestimate of COVID-19’s hospitalization risk most likely keeps a large percentage of Americans submissive to a variety of ineffective policy measures meant to contain SARS-CoV-2, but which have little scientific evidence to support their implementation (e.g., broad outdoor mask mandatesclosing public parkstesting vaccinated people who lack symptomsprohibiting out-of-home-county travel by university students, and contradictory business closure measures).

Back-of-the-Envelope Estimates on “Breakthrough” Risks Associated with COVID-19

We probably know at least one family member or friend who is fully vaccinated and boosted, but who remains deeply concerned that they will still get COVID-19 from an unvaccinated person (i.e., a “breakthrough” case) and end up hospitalized or dead.

I certainly know someone who fits that profile. But is that an rational fear?

To allay this person’s anxiety, I sought out the best available U.S. data on the subject from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). While their aggregated “breakthrough” data only goes through November 2021 (therefore missing the impact of the Omicron variant), it is a good start for a rough estimate of the various COVID-19 risk probabilities for fully vaccinated people.

[The data I am using for this analysis is available here and here.]

Let us first estimate the chance of a fully vaccinated person getting COVID-19 over an entire year. According to the CDC, the week of August 28, 2021 saw a “breakthrough” rate of 117.74 cases per 100,000 vaccinated people in the 26 U.S. states that collect such information (the list of states can be found here). That is the highest weekly rate between April and November 2021 (the lowest being 4.96 per 100,000 during the week of June 5, 2021). To be conservative, I multiplied 117.74 by 52 weeks and divided 100,000 by that product, giving us an estimate of 1 in 16 that a fully vaccinated person will get COVID-19 over the next 12-month period.

That sounds about right. Vaccines aren’t perfect, but definitely effective. According to the CDC, an unvaccinated period has a five times greater chance on contracting COVID-19 than an vaccinated person.

What about hospitalizations? Using the same methodology, I took the CDC’s weekly hospitalization rate for fully vaccinated people (5.4 per 100,000 during the week of November 13, 2021), multiplied by 52 and divided 100,000 by that product to get this estimate: There is a 1 in 356 chance that a fully vaccinated person will be hospitalized for COVID-19 over the next 12-month period.

As a fully vaccinated person myself, I like those chances. The CDC estimates unvaccinated people have an eight times greater chance of being hospitalized for COVID-19.

Finally, the granddaddy of estimates: What are the chances a fully vaccinated person will die from COVID-19 over the next year? The CDC says, at its weekly peak between April and November last year, COVID-19 killed 1.03 vaccinated people per 100,000 vaccinated people. Multiplying that number by 52 and dividing 100,000 by that product, we get this estimate: There is a 1 in 1,867 chance that a fully vaccinated person will die from COVID-19 over the next 12-month period.

In my experience, I consider such chances basically the same as zero.

Some people, like Lloyd in Dumb and Dumber, may view probabilities differently…

But if we take that probability (1 in 1,867 each year) and extend over 60 years, we end up with a 1 in 31 chance that a fully vaccinated person will die from COVID-19 over a 60-year period. That is a 3 percent chance. Compare that to other lifetime probabilities: Dying in a car accident = 1 percent; dying of cancer = 15 percent; dying of heart disease = 17 percent.

Obviously, the lethality of COVID-19, the treatments for it, and the immunities that may build up within us to fight it off renders such a long-term estimate meaningless. But, the point remains, the chances of a vaccinated person dying from COVID-19 are exceedingly remote.

That doesn’t mean CNN won’t find those deadly “breakthrough” cases that do occur and try to scare the crap out of you.

There is irrationality on every side of the political spectrum

What is worse? Not getting vaccinated or harboring a grotesquely inaccurate understanding of the risk probabilities associated with COVID-19?

I think both pose serious problems. The unvaccinated potentially hurt themselves and those close to them who are also unvaccinated. There is also a small chance that other people will be denied ICU beds because they are occupied by unvaccinated COVID-19 patients.

But possessing an unwarranted fear of COVID-19 is equally dangerous and can also cause needless, even life-threatening, harm to others. Every time a state shuts down businesses and economic sectors due to surges in COVID-19, they are putting people out of work, a large number of whom cannot afford lapses in income and health insurance.

The wealth of the world’s wealthiest has surged during the COVID-19 pandemic, while millions of people worldwide have descended into poverty. This is not hyperbole. It is widely-accepted fact among economists. Furthermore, people can die when they become impoverished.

So, when the majority of Democrats hold irrational fears about the dangers of COVID-19, they increase the likelihood that politicians will pursue bad COVID-19 policies that may do more harm than good. People die when livelihoods are threatened and giving them a $2,000 check now and then is not enough to change that fact.

Whether from a left, right or center perspective, what is the solution to all of this? Stop watching, listening or reading the news from mainstream news outlets and seek alternative news sources (The GrayzoneBreaking Points, etc.). Perhaps then the national news outlets will consider hiring more trained journalists with backgrounds outside of our elite universities. I recommend University of Iowa journalism grads, but I’m biased.

  • K.R.K.

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