The White House was mad at social networks for helping to spread misinformation about vaccines. Now the Biden administration is also mad at the media, claiming that alarmist coverage about the Delta variant could be making people more hesitant to get vaccinated. That’s at least what two senior administration officials told CNN recently, saying that media outlets are spending way too much time and energy covering breakthrough infections when that is still exceedingly rare.
In particular, officials are frustrated with some headlines that make it sound like those who are vaccinated are just as likely to spread COVID-19 as the unvaccinated. But that framing fails to make clear that those who are vaccinated have a much lower chance of contracting the coronavirus in the first place so they really aren’t the ones responsible for the vast majority of infections. “The media’s coverage doesn’t match the moment,” one of the officials said. “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 main fear in the administration is that this kind of framing could lead people who are already hesitant to get a vaccine to harden in their position thinking that it’s pointless to get the shot.
That frustration from the White House burst into public view on Friday when a White House official publicly pushed back against the Washington Post and New York Times on Twitter. Ben Wakana, who is part of the White House COVID-19 communications team, publicly called out the Washington Post over the paper’s headline about a study of a COVID-19 outbreak in Provincetown, Mass. “Vaccinated people made up three-quarters of those infected in a massive Massachusetts covid-19 outbreak, pivotal CDC study finds,” read the Post tweet. Wakana fired back: “Completely irresponsible.” Wakana noted the CDC has made clear that “vaccinated individuals represent a VERY SMALL amount of transmission occurring around the country.” Minutes later, Wakana blasted the New York Times after it sent out a tweet that said, “The Delta variant is as contagious as chickenpox and may be spread by vaccinated people as easily as the unvaccinated.” Wakana wanted to make his frustration so evident that he replied in all-caps: “VACCINATED PEOPLE DO NOT TRANSMIT THE VIRUS AT THE SAME RATE AS UNVACCINATED PEOPLE AND IF YOU FAIL TO INCLUDE THAT CONTEXT YOU’RE DOING IT WRONG.”
It isn’t just the White House that has expressed frustration with media coverage. Matthew Gertz, a senior fellow at Media Matters for America sent out a series of tweets explaining the importance of framing when talking about breakthrough infections. “As vaccination rates increase the percentage of cases that are in vaccinated people NECESSARILY increases, Gertz tweeted. Gertz said that he’s convinced these kinds of stories are written because “journalists, like most people, often including myself, do not have a firm handle on statistical reasoning.”