Reporting inaccurately linking deaths to vaccination risks fueling vaccine hesitancy
Fringe and mainstream coverage implied deaths
Fringe and mainstream coverage implied deaths caused by mRNA COVID-19 vaccines but lacked causal links
An analysis conducted by the DFRLab highlighted that both fringe and mainstream media have reported misleadingly on isolated cases of death following COVID-19 vaccination. While in some cases, mainstream outlets acknowledged that the cause of death was unknown, the association of a death with the prior event of receiving a COVID-19 vaccine may still fuel vaccine hesitancy, even though there is no causal link in these cases.
As the American Medical Association stated in a report published on February 12, 2021, there have been no deaths caused by mRNA COVID-19 vaccines. Studies show that there is significant vaccine hesitancy worldwide, albeit it appears to be slowly fading in the United States and Europe. The fact that most COVID-19 vaccines are a novel type of vaccine using messenger RNA (mRNA) may make some people even more hesitant to take them, despite their high safety and efficacy profile.
The DFRLab analyzed three extensively reported cases about sudden deaths of individuals within days of receiving a COVID-19 vaccine:
- A story about a nurse in Portugal (41) who died two days after receiving the first dose of the Pfizer/BioNTech mRNS vaccine. The cause of death was unknown, but preliminary autopsy results showed no connection with the vaccine
- A story about a doctor in Miami, Florida (56) who died 16 days after having received he Pfizer/BioNTech mRNS vaccine from an unrelated blood disorder. Authorities did not connect his death with the vaccine
- A story about a health care worker in Orange County, California (60), who died hours after receiving the second dose of the Pfizer/BioNTech mRNS vaccine. The cause of death investigation results remain unknown
The DFRLab compiled 753 relevant online media publications using Google Search and social media listening tools BuzzSumo and Meltwater. Only publications that were exclusively about each of the cases mentioned above were included in the dataset. Publications that mentioned one or more of the cases as passing examples were excluded.
Additionally, social media engagement data for each publication’s URL was retrieved from BuzzSumo and CrowdTangle, a Facebook analysis tool. BuzzSumo provided data about the number of backlinks to each URL.
Each publication was then manually divided into the following categories based on the headline, as people often read just the headlines of articles before sharing news:
- Stories that connected a sudden death with a person having taken the vaccine
- Stories that informed about an ongoing investigation related to the death in each case
- Stories that concluded that there is no connection between the death and vaccine
- Stories that provided a fact-check or shared a message that did not fit into any of the above categories.
The DFRLab also categorized domains based on information provided by News Guard, a webpage trust assessment tool, and manual assessment of webpages that News Guard did not have information about.
Official statement of cause of death underreported
As seen in the chart below, publications connecting deaths to vaccines (purple), as well as those that mentioned the launching of investigations (yellow) appeared more frequently than publications reporting the conclusions of investigations about the cause of death (blue). Additionally, initial publications that connected deaths with vaccines (purple) and publications that mentioned launched investigations (yellow), garnered more shares in total (horizontal axis) and had the largest number of backlinks compared to publications that contained the link to the article from the set (size of a circle).
While the initial stories about the deaths of the doctor in Miami and the nurse in Portugal were still trending online, articles that claimed vaccines had not caused these deaths (blue bars) also appeared, albeit in much lower numbers. No stories about investigation results appeared in the case of the healthcare worker in California.
The analysis shows that, in these three cases, media outlets published more articles with headlines that connected deaths to vaccines — even if the relation was chronological rather than causal — than articles explaining that investigations found no evidence that vaccination caused these deaths.
It is common practice in journalism to use catchy headlines to grab attention, especially online, but these headlines can also be misleading for audiences that do not often read past them before sharing.
Mainstream media drove engagement
Most of the media outlets that published articles linking vaccines to deaths were fringe outlets, or unpopular news sites (47 percent). Trustworthy websites, according to News Guard, constituted approximately one third (32.02 percent) of the dataset. The number of anti-vax and other unreliable websites was small: 1.23 percent and 3.81 percent, respectively. See the rest of the categories listed below.
There were more trustworthy domains (green) reporting about deaths in the United States than the death in Portugal. The death of the Portuguese nurse was predominantly reported by fringe domains (blue).
Trustworthy domains, on the other hand, drove engagement to news stories. For instance, Chicago Tribune wrote the following headline about the doctor in Miami: “A ‘healthy’ doctor died two weeks after getting a COVID-19 vaccine; CDC is investigating why.” Though this report was factually correct, it implied connection between possibly unrelated events — the vaccination and the death.
The publication garnered over one million shares on Facebook, and 1,200 shares on Twitter. The total social media engagement was almost five million, according to BuzzSumo.
Regional Fox News domains played a significant role in spreading the story about the Californian health worker prior to the official cause of death being confirmed by way of duplicate publications, with local Fox stations syndicating the same story. In total, these duplicate publications garnered 485,734 engagements, according to BuzzSumo and CrowdTangle. The coverage, though factually correct, falsely implied a causal connection between receiving the vaccine and and the death.
In the case of the Portuguese nurse, the British tabloid Daily Mail garnered most of the engagement — 194,862 reactions and shares. Though its initial reporting was sensationalist, the outlet later included the update that “the preliminary results of the autopsy ‘did not establish a direct relationship with the vaccine against Covid-19’.”
Nevertheless, outlets that cited the Daily Mail’s article and linked back to it did not report on the fact that no direct relationship between the vaccine and the death of the Portuguese nurse had been established.
Anti-vax outlets cited
When it came to the number of linking domains, Daily Mail and the anti-vax website The Defender garnered a significant number of citations in articles about the three cases of death after vaccination.
Daily Mail reported on all three of cases. According to backlinks retrieved from BuzzSumo, the story about the Portuguese nurse was cited the most, thus the links that cited Daily Mail’s story garnered the most shares and further links.
Among the backlinks for the Daily Mail’s publication about the Portuguese nurse were articles that alleged that vaccines were fatal. Many of the domains that published articles suggesting vaccines were killing people were not well known, having never been rated by News Guard, and typically published on the topic more than once.
The top cited story of The Defender was titled, “Johns Hopkins Scientist: ‘A Medical Certainty’ Pfizer Vaccine Caused Death of Florida Doctor.” The story also garnered the most engagement and received the most links from other domains.
The story quoting the “Johns Hopkins Scientist” appeared in 11 publications, including duplicates, that counted “329 deaths” after receiving vaccines, but also appeared in 21 publications, including duplicates, as an example for how anti-vaccine activists are wrongly claiming that COVID-19 vaccines are causing deaths. The most engaged-with story in the set was published by CNN on January 25, 2021.
Notably, the other story by The Defender reporting about the sudden death of the doctor in Miami was not directly linked in any debunk or fact-check. Instead, it appeared linked in eight publications falsely suggesting that mRNA vaccines cause a “life-threatening blood disorder,” and in 14 publications citing the anti-vaccine activist Robert F. Kennedy Junior as alleging that deaths after vaccination are no coincidence.
In reporting on isolated instances of death following, but not directly linked to, receiving a COVID-19 vaccine, mainstream outlets need to be careful to clarify that there are no known causal links between vaccination and death. Even when the information reported in the article is accurate, headlines that fail to directly address the lack of causation between the two while highlighting an isolated incident may encourage vaccine hesitance. Furthermore, these isolated cases of death following vaccination for COVID-19 are often exploited by anti-vaccination activists as evidence that vaccines are lethal, despite no evidence to support such claims.
Nika Aleksejeva is a Research Associate, Baltics, with the Digital Forensic Research Lab.
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