As COVID-19 vaccination mandates start being more widely enforced, the vast majority of people are getting on board—in fact, a significant majority of adults were already vaccinated before mandates were put in place. But the very small percentage of people refusing to be vaccinated, at the cost of their jobs, is getting the headlines, as if people who refuse to be vaccinated are the new Trump voters in Midwestern diners.
From The Wall Street Journal to The Washington Post to USA Today to NPR to Fox News (and Fox News, and Fox News again), these stories make the small percentage of people doing something dangerous to themselves and everyone around them into the story, rather than the majority of people who got vaccinated right away or the potentially very interesting group of people who didn’t want to get vaccinated but did do so because of mandates. That group, too, outnumbers people leaving their jobs over this. But major media outlets aren’t interested in hearing from them.
And we can’t trust what we read about the refusers. Take this New York Times piece looking at the “sizable, unwavering contingent” of vaccine refusers (less than 5% of people in most cases) through interviews with six of them. One of them is Josephine Valdez, who the Times fails to tell us is a Trump-supporting anti-vaccine activist who has participated in an attack on a coronavirus testing site:
That’s a far cry from the regretful public school paraprofessional the Times describes giving up her job and moving back in with her parents despite the pleas of her “distressed” students to get vaccinated and stay on the job. In this case, we didn’t even get a reliable thumbnail sketch of the person who led off a major article.
That glaring omission then casts doubt on the stories of the other people interviewed. Some of them, like Valdez until you find out her background, seem highly sympathetic if misguided as they are portrayed by the Times. They include a gym cleaner who has left her job and worries about pulling her daughter out of school if students are required to be vaccinated against COVID-19 in addition to all the other vaccines that are already required. There’s also a special education teacher who worries about the effects of vaccination on the child she is breastfeeding (although the best available evidence is that getting vaccinated will help protect that child). But since we had to go to Twitter to learn that Valdez is out there tearing down a testing site, how do we know the Times didn’t get played equally badly by some of the other people in the piece?
Let’s say, for argument’s sake, that at least some of these people have sincere worries. What do we learn from them, at least as they are quoted in this article, about how to understand their reasoning and their sources of information? Not much. Interesting questions might include the sources of misinformation and disinformation that made them so frightened of vaccines that hundreds of millions of people have taken safely. Pregnant women and new mothers face a barrage of anti-vaccine fearmongering that would be very much worth a look. Black people have generations of reasons to distrust health care providers, and those reasons continue today. There’s the pernicious influence of Fox News and Facebook. If people are so fearful, where is that coming from? But reporters don’t seem to be asking that, or reporting it if they do.
Of course, that would require the media to look at itself. It would require the media to take on the powerful forces spreading vaccine disinformation, from Republican lawmakers to Facebook. It would require serious investigation and analysis rather than shallow interviews.
It’s not just The New York Times, by any means. Huge amounts of attention have gone to around 1,900 public workers in Washington State who have left their jobs rather than be vaccinated. But Ctrl Alt-Right Delete’s Melissa Ryan offers important context for those 1,900 people, who are 3% of their workforce. “I understand that rebellion makes for a more buzzy story but while 3% is a number worth noting, it’s not really a dramatic reduction,” she writes. “Especially in the context of the Great Resignation, which has also been widely reported. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2.9% of Americans voluntarily quit their jobs in August of this year. The 3% of state workers who opted to resign or be terminated is in line with that number.”
There are fascinating stories to be written about who, exactly, is willing to leave their job rather than be vaccinated for this specific disease versus all of the other diseases for which vaccination has long been required. What are their sources of information? What about the Atlanta hospital that hired a New York nurse on a two-month travel shift after she lost her previous job for refusing to get vaccinated? Again—and I cannot say this enough—what about the people who complied with mandates despite having previously hesitated? Instead, the actions of a very small minority are treated as the story about an issue that has major implications both for public health and for our understanding of misinformation and disinformation. And, yeah, all too often, serious activists and even Republican operatives slip unidentified into these average-worker-on-the-street kinds of stories.