Unchecked COVID-19 vaccine misinformation uncommon in mainstream news media, but spreads widely, according to study

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Researchers analyzed articles from the top 100 English-language news sources

Unrefuted misinformation related to vaccines for COVID-19 is uncommon in the news media, according to a first-of-its-kind analysis of nearly 1.3 million English-language news stories published today in BMJ Open. While articles that present misinformation, outside of a fact-checking situation, are uncommon they have the capacity to reach large numbers of readers and affect the vaccine conversation, according to the study.

Researchers at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, the Alliance for Science at the Boyce Thompson Institute, Vaccinate Your Family, and the media monitoring company Cision used Cision’s NextGen Communications Cloud platform to examine the magnitude of vaccine misinformation in traditional (non-social), professionally generated media for the period July 27, 2020 through June 30, 2021. Due to the enormous amount of COVID-19 vaccine coverage during the study period, the study was restricted to the 100 online news outlets and news-focused blogs with the largest “reach” with respect to COVID-19 vaccines. These outlets included 1,298,054 articles on COVID-19 vaccines during the study period.

Using a Boolean search string created for the study, 41,718, or 3.2 percent of all COVID-19 vaccine articles, contained at least one of six specific vaccine misinformation themes. 56.2 percent contained at least one mention of a Safety theme, which included false claims that vaccines might variously cause death, DNA or RNA alteration, autism, COVID-19, unverified side effects, or that the vaccines included dangerous chemicals. 26.6 percent of articles included the Development, Production, and Distribution theme, which included discourse that the vaccines were developed too quickly, not tested properly or contained untrue claims related to forced vaccinations. 15.1 percent of articles contained at least one mention of a Conspiracies theme, including discourse that the vaccines contained microchips or other means of population control.

The researchers then closely read and coded 500 articles selected at random from those identified by the Boolean string to determine whether the articles were not relevant at all (45 percent); whether they contained fact-checking (35 percent), referred to misinformation (17 percent), or contained primary and unrefuted misinformation (3 percent). There was a notable increase in fact-checking in November 2020. Overall, approximately 0.1 percent of all articles on COVID-19 vaccines in the researchers’ sample contained primary misinformation.

69.9 percent of the reach of 277 relevant articles was identified as fact-checking of misinformation, and the potential reach of those articles—defined as visitors to the sites containing the articles, exceeded 400 million people in some weeks.

“This information has the potential to affect the vaccine conversation and contribute to vaccine hesitancy, particularly if shared avidly among certain groups,” the authors wrote. “Even articles that simply refer to misinformation ... but do not refute it, have the potential to influence the conversation.”

“The development of safe and effective vaccines for COVID-19 was a historic scientific achievement and represents still our best hope for putting the pandemic behind us,” said CSPI president Dr. Peter G. Lurie, who served as associate commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration during the Obama administration. “While most mainstream news reporting generally does a credible job rebutting misinformation related to vaccines, the reach of the articles that do contain misinformation threatens to undermine that historic achievement.” 

“Misinformation about vaccines can have deadly consequences,” said Amy Pisani, Chief Executive Officer for Vaccinate Your Family. “This study shows that many of the world’s largest media outlets are thankfully taking this issue very seriously, but more needs to be done to ensure people get the accurate, science-based information they need to make truly informed decisions about vaccines for themselves and their families.”

“While this study suggests that explicit, unrefuted misinformation is mercifully rare in mainstream media, those articles that do misinform people about COVID vaccinations can still do a lot of damage,” said Alliance for Science research associate Mark Lynas. “Journalists and others in the media need to keep their guard up and ensure that vaccine misinformers are not given access to a wide audience as the global pandemic continues.”

Besides Lurie, Lynas, and Pisani, the study authors included Jordan Adams and Karen Stockert from Cision, Robyn Correll Carlyle of Vaccinate Your Family, and Sarah Evanega, also with the Alliance for Science.

Earlier research by the Alliance for Science published in October 2020 found that the greatest source of misinformation related to COVID-19 was then-President Donald Trump.