The Media

How Not to Write About the COVID Vaccine and Unrelated Sudden Deaths

A vaccination being administered.
This is very, very safe. Angela Weiss/Getty Images

This afternoon, a big-city gossip rag published a post online with the following headline—which I would just like to tell you upfront is extremely misleading and no reason to worry:

"University of Cincinnati student dead a day after getting j&j vaccine."
Screengrab from the New York Post
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In truth, we don’t know why this 21-year-old University of Cincinnati student died unexpectedly—as the piece, in the New York Post, itself notes in the fourth paragraph: “There is no evidence that his death is related to the Johnson & Johnson shot.” But—I probably don’t even need to tell you this—it should not have taken four paragraphs of blog text to get to that point. The piece should not have been tweeted out with a smiling photo of the young man and next to it an equally large photo of a J&J vaccine vial. And it definitely should not have had that headline.

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I cannot say that I’m surprised that the New York Post chose to run that headline today, because they did the same thing a month ago, with one that read: “Italy Opens Manslaughter Case After Teacher Dies Hours After Getting AstraZeneca Vaccine.” In this case, it takes a whopping six paragraphs to get to the line: “Officials have insisted there has yet to be a direct link between [the teacher’s] death and his shot.” In fact, the point of the manslaughter inquiry mentioned in the headline is to find the suspected criminal cause of his death.

At least in the case of this similar headline below from March the first line of the story has the caveat in it: ”health officials haven’t confirmed that her death was linked to the shot.”

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"Family claims Kansas woman died from COVID-19 vaccine reaction."
Screengrab from the New York Post
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You might ask: If “a cause of death has yet to be determined,” according to local health officials quoted in the story, and there’s no compelling reason given why the vaccine might actually be linked to the death, why run it at all? This is a little bit of a rhetorical question—the authors of these posts write several stories a day, and the deaths-and-vaccines combination is clearly irresistible. And I do not mean to say that all the Post’s vaccine coverage is like this—there have been some genuinely shrewd takes too, like a recent one explaining that the risk of blood clots from COVID-19 itself is much higher than that from any vaccine. And yet, it seems that in the Post’s editorial view, anyone who dies without a clear cause and was recently vaccinated against COVID-19 is worth a quick chart-topping headline that shares these two facts, even if there’s no medical evidence whatsoever to think that they are related—and even if it baselessly fuels vaccine skepticism that, in a real way, will cost lives.

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This is not a just a shameless ploy for eyeballs, which the Post has essentially refined to an art at this point. It’s actively dangerous. There is zero scientific or journalistic purpose to these death stories. With some 3.35 million shots going into arms each day, bad things are bound to happen to people who, coincidentally, just got a shot; this is not news. Meanwhile, every single day people do die of COVID—912 in the United States on Thursday—a fact that we are all so numb to at this point in the pandemic that it’s difficult for stories stating that we’ve reached a new milestone in hundreds of thousands of deaths to break through the noise.

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And these headlines are especially maddening given that vaccines, well, can in extremely rare cases be potentially linked to life-threatening side effects. When health officials suspect they might be—as was the case this week with the J&J vaccine and blood clots—we need to be able to talk about it in a sane, rational way. We do not need headlines like today’s on the case of the 21-year-old that further play into vaccine fears. When things do go wrong, we do not need a news audience that might already be skeptical of vaccines, in part thanks to headlines like this one:

"UK woman says WHO-approved AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine turned her into ‘Alien’ monster"
Screengrab from the New York Post
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