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Science

Johnson and Johnson Covid-19 vaccine

Photo by the New York National Guard

Reprinted with permission from Press Run

Concerned about six rare and severe blood clot reactions out of nearly seven million Americans who have received the Johnson & Johnson Covid-19 vaccine, the CDC, and the FDA last week announced a sweeping pause of the immunization in order to investigate the handful of cases.

The J&J vaccine, with its single-dose regimen, currently represents less than five percent of the 100 million-plus vaccines that have been administered this year. The government has more than enough Pfizer and Moderna vaccines to hit the goal of 200 million shots by the end of the month, according to the White House.

Unfortunately for the J&J breaking news, crucial context was missing from most of the headlines. Instead of stressing that less than one in a million J&J shots had produced the troubling blood clot reaction, the press focused on "concerns" surrounding the "halt," and how the move "threatens to slow U.S. pandemic progress":

•"Johnson & Johnson Vaccinations Halt Across Country After Rare Clotting Cases Emerge" (New York Times)

•"CDC and FDA Recommend US Pause Use of Johnson & Johnson's Covid-19 Vaccine Over Blood Clot Concerns" (CNN)

•"US Recommends 'Pause' For J&J Vaccine Over Clot Reports" (Associated Press)

•"Pause of J&J Vaccine Threatens to Slow U.S. Pandemic Progress Amid Rising Caseload" (Washington Post)

•"Stocks Wobble After J&J Vaccine Halted, Inflation Uptick" (Wall Street Journal)

•"US Calls For Pause in Johnson & Johnson Vaccinations Over Blood Clot Concerns" (ABC News)

•"U.S. Recommends Pausing Use Of Johnson & Johnson Vaccine Over Blood Clot Concerns" (NPR)

It would have been such a simple fix to include "six cases" in each of those headlines, or "extremely rare" in order to give the story crucial, factual context. It's especially important to provide that full meaning during a public health crisis. Reading those headlines, people likely assumed there were hundreds if not thousands of cases that prompted the vaccine "pause."

The key omission played into the hands of conservatives who work hard to raise doubts about the virus shots.

It's true that news consumers who dug into the reports discovered how rare the vaccine-related blood clots were. But those consumers were likely in the minority. According to a a 2016 study by computer scientists at Columbia University and the French National Institute, nearly 60 percent of links shared on social media have never actually been clicked. "People form an opinion based on a summary, or a summary of summaries, without making the effort to go deeper," the chief researcher announced.

The J&J news also attracted lots of media attention speculating whether the halt would cause more people to not want to get vaccinated.

It was a bit ironic Tuesday to watch reporters repeatedly press White House officials at the daily media briefing about whether the J&J pause will increase vaccine hesitancy, while never addressing the role the press might play in that phenomenon. By repeatedly failing to put the J&J pause in proper context, specifically with headlines, news outlets bear some of the responsibility this week in pushing alarmist narratives that don't match the facts.

The CDC and FDA move comes at a time when the conservative media have raised doubts about the vaccines and Republican voters, and white evangelicals in particular, have expressed disdain for getting vaccinated as the country tries to achieve herd immunity in order to return to normalcy. For that to happen, anywhere 75 percent to 85 percent of the total population — including children, who are not currently getting the shots — need to be vaccinated.

Nationally, a recent Marist poll in partnership with NPR and PBS found 49 percent of Republican men said they would not take the vaccine. In Texas, 61 percent of white Republicans say they'll decline. In one county in Alabama, just seven percent of the eligible population has opted to get vaccinated. (More than 90 percent of county voters backed Trump last year.) And in North Carolina, a coastal county will stop administering vaccines at the end of the month because so few residents are scheduling appointments for the shot.

On Tuesday, the J&J announcement was treated as the biggest Covid news in weeks. The halt came at a time when there had been endless encouraging news about the vaccine rollout during Joe Biden's presidency.

Is it possible the bad-news angle appealed to the press? A recent study found that the U.S. press prefers to lean into bad Covid news:

The [pandemic] coverage by U.S. publications with a national audience has been much more negative than coverage by any other source that the researchers analyzed, including scientific journals, major international publications and regional U.S. media. "The most well-read U.S. media are outliers in terms of their negativity."

The important J&J pause story was one that cried out for full context in all aspects of the coverage, including the all-important headlines. Instead, the press bungled the assignment.

UPDATED: "Axios' Neal Rothschild notes that of the 20 most-engaged stories on social media about the Johnson & Johnson pause, just two headlines included the context that the blood clots were rare occurrences, according to data from NewsWhip."

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