SNL I'm America's voice of reason and celebrity hall pass for some reason, Dr. Fauci. The vaccine rollout is going strong, but it's also very confusing. Who can get it? How? When? Where is it? Do both doses go in the same arm, or different arms or what? I don't know. So tonight, we give everyday Americans the chance to vie for a vaccine eligibility on a little show we like to call: so you think you can get the vaccine? [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD And to be sure, with crashing online portals and freezing outdoor lines, an innoculation Hunger Games is the stuff late night comedy was born to cover.
SNL Getting the vaccine shouldn't be a competition, but Americans will only want to get it if it means someone else can't. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD But there's a whole group of Americans, roughly one in three, who are eyeing the queues at their local pharmacies and saying "maybe not," or "no, thanks," or the timeless "Bill Gates is trying to implant a microchip in me." Derek Thompson is a staff writer at The Atlantic, and this week he warned against lumping together those skirting vaccination into one category. Though the majority do have one thing in common.
DEREK THOMPSON I think the biggest slice has to be the Republican Party. In the last few months, just about every demographic has grown more positive about the vaccines, as we've accelerated the process of putting shots into arms. Black Americans have become less resistant. Hispanic Americans have become less resistant. Overall Americans, including most Democrats, have become less resistant. It's only really Republicans, and in particular younger Republicans under the age of, say, 50, who basically 4 months ago, 50 percent of them said, I don't want this vaccine. And you asked them today, 50 percent of them say I don't want this vaccine. So when we talk about vaccine hesitancy and a large part of that conversation is about nonwhite Americans. For a good reason, I think it's important to put on the front burner that the group that has been least moved by our early successes in vaccinating Americans are Republicans.
BOB GARFIELD In one of your pieces, you make a chilling observation that various marginalized communities have earned their hesitancy, not just from their history, but from their present. Especially blacks and Native Americans. How would you characterize that problem?
DEREK THOMPSON So, I came into this not really knowing a whole lot about the history of medical exploitation of nonwhite Americans. I knew about the syphilis experiments, but I was very far from being an expert in this space.
BOB GARFIELD And those were experiments in which black subjects, some got the treatment for syphilis. A whole other group did not, but they were not informed that they had not gotten the real drug. They've gotten only a placebo and they remained sick.
DEREK THOMPSON And many of them died, exactly. Professor Giselle Corbie Smith at the University of North Carolina, who's also the director of their Center for Health Equity Research, she made what I just thought was a really, really powerful point. Which is that to assume that it's only the history of exploitation by the medical field, or the history of unethical research conduct that taints black Americans’ trust in the medical system. It's a really big mistake. She says, no it's their current day experience with a health care system, including in this pandemic where black and brown Americans have died at a much higher rate than white Americans. That leads to their abundant distrust in the medical system. Even now, with the rollout of the vaccines, there are towns and counties in Alabama, in the south that are majority black, that haven't received a single dose.
You know, these populations have many reasons to distrust that they are a priority of this government's health care system. It's a big reason why when I asked a lot of clinicians what would they call the vaccine hesitancy that they see, what would they replace that noun with? Giselle Corbie Smith said she calls it vaccine deliberation, right. Not skepticism, not hesitancy, not reluctance – deliberation. This is a time, she said, of watchful waiting for black and brown people.
BOB GARFIELD You attribute some of the fear and misunderstanding to careless media behavior, not necessarily bad information, but badly presented or incautiously presented information. How so?
DEREK THOMPSON So one example that I reported on: February 5th, NBC reports..
NBC NEWS REPORT That the CDC says it's investigating the death of a 58 year old woman in Virginia who died shortly after receiving the Pfizer vaccine. [END CLIP]
DEREK THOMPSON So the story goes viral. It feeds on a lot of people's preexisting fears that these vaccines might kill them or hurt them. But several weeks later, NBC reports the death is almost certainly unrelated. So, is that story disinformation? Is it misinformation? Well, no, not technically. Like the headline might have been true, this woman did die shortly after her vaccination shot. But it's the sort of technical truth that I think is the enemy of understanding. It's inevitable that some older Americans are going to die shortly after getting this vaccine shot, in a way that doesn't necessarily have anything to do with the nature of the chemical that they just put in their body.
BOB GARFIELD You know, they also put on socks before they died.
DEREK THOMPSON Exactly!
BOB GARFIELD And nobody's associating that with the cause of death.
DEREK THOMPSON Putting on socks is a fantastic example. So there's that sort of misleading information, even though I don't think it's disinformation. I think that there are, and I want to be delicate about this, a lot of really smart journalists and scientists that are holding on to a interpretive mode about the pandemic that is overly dire in the face of information that is getting better and better. And I think we're sometimes downplaying that effectiveness in a way that's really harmful.
BOB GARFIELD Who else is culpable for carelessness? What about public health officials, medical practitioners, governors, presidents?
DEREK THOMPSON There is a lot of blame to be shared throughout the entire sort of elite ecosystem. From public health officials to politicians, especially on the right. They are more to blame, but it doesn't let us off the hook. And just because an extremely pessimistic and risk forward interpretation of the pandemic was necessary, morally necessary a year ago doesn't mean that that's exactly the same way that we should be talking about the upcoming phase of the pandemic. We've seen hospitalizations decline among senior citizens by 80 percent in the last two months. We've seen vaccines increase from fewer than one million shots per day now to more than two million shots per day. Things are changing. And as things change, we need to change the interpretive mode with which we talk about the world.
BOB GARFIELD It is the nature of journalism to focus not on what's right or what's OK, but rather what's wrong, what's aberrant, what's dangerous. And as a consequence, we start delivering what you call: doom bait. Stories that are scary, that in the aggregate obscure the very kinds of progress you're describing. How do we fix what is the problem of journalists just being journalists?
DEREK THOMPSON I think you're right that we are much more likely to focus on bad news than good news, and especially likely to focus on sudden bad news. Even than, slowly evolving bad news. There are much more stories about earthquakes than malaria, but we know that malaria kills more people than earthquakes. But what I'm actually worried about is something closer to I guess you could call it negativity, bias habituation. I should probably unpack that. If journalists are seen as being overly negative all the time, then there's a certain category of reader that's going to learn to stop listening to us when we give negative news. You know, the classic canonical story here, I guess, is the boy who cried wolf. If we cry sudden, horrific negativity in the face of overall improving data where people feel like not only are they seeing things getting better, but they're ready for things to get better, then we're going to lose the trust that is already so tenuous, I think, between the press and our readership, our subscribers and our viewers and listeners. And so we need to find a way to balance our possibly ethical and maybe inevitable negativity bias with an ability to be responsive to the world.
BOB GARFIELD Derek, thank you very much.
DEREK THOMPSON Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD Derek Thompson is a staff writer at The Atlantic.
BROOKE GLADSTONE On TV, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is a saintly Dr. Jekyll. In print, more of a Mr. Hyde.
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