There is growing frustration in the White House over how the Delta variant impacts fully vaccinated people and how it’s being translated by the news media.
We’re not talking about politically-motivated talk shows like Fox News’ prime-time shows, but about mainstream news networks like NBC, as well as major newspapers like the New York Times and The Washington Post. Those outlets are facing heavy criticism for allegedly misrepresenting the newest data from the CDC, which implied that fully vaccinated people who are infected by the Delta strain can infect others just as easily as those who are unvaccinated. Here is what CDC director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said in a statement issued Friday.
“High viral loads suggest an increased risk of transmission and raised concern that, unlike with other variants, vaccinated people infected with Delta can transmit the virus.”
What has the Biden Administration frustrated is not the reporting of that information. It is obviously newsworthy. But as Oliver Darcy wrote in CNN’s Reliable Sources newsletter, it’s how journalists are zeroing on breakthrough infections among the vaccinated and presenting such information that has the White House fuming.
At the heart of the matter is the news media's focus on breakthrough infections, which the CDC has said are rare. In some instances, poorly framed headlines and cable news chyrons wrongly suggested that vaccinated Americans are just as likely to spread the disease as unvaccinated Americans. But that isn't quite the case. Vaccinated Americans still have a far lower chance of becoming infected with the coronavirus and, thus, they are responsible for far less spread of the disease.
"The media's coverage doesn't match the moment," one of the Biden officials told me. "It has been hyperbolic and frankly irresponsible in a way that hardens vaccine hesitancy. The biggest problem we have is unvaccinated people getting and spreading the virus."
The New York Times tweeted as breaking news that the Delta variant could be spread just as easily by vaccinated people as by those who haven’t had the vaccine, which does not accurately represent the CDC information.
The Times heard from many folks on twitter about the misleading tweet.
Here’s one more example of a headline that doesn’t come close to telling the full picture, from an NBC News reporter. It’s obvious that Ken Dilanian, a top reporter, simply shared the NBC story and the initial headline. But by sharing just that headline, it may imply to people who don’t click through and read the entire story that the vaccines aren’t that effective.
The truth is, those 125,000 “breakthrough” cases represent less than .08 percent of the fully vaccinated people. That’s the story, that the vaccines are working. Dilanian’s NBC colleague Laura Strickler wrote the story and defended it, by pointing out she highlighted how small a percentage these cases represent.
From my story:— Laura Strickler (@strickdc) July 30, 2021
“The 125,682 “breakthrough” cases in 38 states found by NBC News represent less than .08 percent of the 164.2 million-plus people who have been fully vaccinated since January, or about one in every 1,300.”
But the point isn’t that the overall story was inaccurate. It’s that the headline was misleading. And oftentimes in the age of social media-fueled impatience and TLDR (Too Lazy, Didn’t Read), the headline may be the only thing someone reads.
To NBC News’ credit – and likely because it read all the tweets slamming its alarmist take, it revised the headline to a much more accurate framing of the data. But as Matthew Gertz wrote, it’s time for journalists to be more mindful of how to present statistical analysis regarding COVID, especially in headlines.
As Mediaite points out, the CDC’s data simply backs up the assertions about the vaccines we’ve been hearing all along. They work:
Public health officials have been telling us since the beginning the vaccines aren’t perfect and that there will be breakthrough cases. We were told the Pfizer vaccine is about 94% effective, the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is about 66% effective, etc. The breakthrough cases NBC and the Post are reporting were entirely expected.
The White Houses’s big fear is that the fumbling of the message by media outlets that are supposed to be the responsible messengers of news could lead to more people being hesitant to take the vaccine. There is also the concern that those on the right will weaponize misleading headlines in their continued attempts to make the COVID vaccines a political issue, instead of the public safety issue it is. This is exactly what Tucker Carlson did on his Fox News show Friday night.
Such manipulation of a headline that completely bungled the true messaging of the CDC’s data is exactly why the White House, and the rest of us, want legitimate news outlets to do a better job of representing the story.