On Attitudes Towards Vaccines and the Media

Like most journalists, I subscribe to various electronic newsletters that keep me up to date on headlines and developing news in various fields. Today’s emailed newsletter from the Pew Research Center carried a link to a headline for a Los Angeles Times column that caught my eye: “Why does the public hate the news media?”

That’s a bit too hyperbolic and vague for my taste. Deepening distrust of mainstream journalism is a big problem, but it’s part of a larger set of intertwined trends nicely put into context last year by Derek Thompson at The Atlantic.

In fairness, the LA Times column by journalist and essayist Mark Oppenheimer focuses mostly on the general media distrust issue and how to fix it. Alas, he also provides reason to be skeptical of his argument. Oppenheimer writes:

People trust reporters at about the same rate that they trust vaccines (only 51% believe that they’re safe) or believe in haunted houses (which 47% believe exist). This is really bad news for reporters, not to mention unvaccinated children.

If you’re familiar with the vaccine debate in recent years, your antenna probably rose after reading that. The source for the 51% figure is a 2014 Washington Post Wonkblog piece, which links to a 2013 AP poll that found 53% of Americans were “extremely/very confident” that childhood vaccines were “safe and effective.”

So what’s the problem with the stat cited by Oppenheimer? For starters, it’s from a general public opinion poll that provides a misleading view of vaccine attitudes. Every other major survey that drills down specifically into attitudes on vaccines tells a different story. A 2015 Reuters poll found that a “large majority of Americans favor mandatory vaccinations of children.” Also that year, Gallup found that 8 in 10 people believed that vaccinating children was important.

And earlier this year, a headline from the Pew Research Center: “Vast Majority of Americans Say benefits of Childhood Vaccines Outweigh Risks.” It’s worth pointing out that this stated trust and confidence is borne out by the numbers. According to a new Centers for Disease Centers (CDC) report, U.S. childhood immunization rates for the 2016-17 school year “approached 95 percent.” Moreover, “these rates have been relatively consistent since the 2011–12 school year,” the report noted.

True, there are outlier communities and demographics that are resistant to vaccines, but they are a tiny minority and they don’t reflect a larger distrustful attitude towards vaccines.

So the set-up for Oppenheimer’s piece is faulty. A majority of Americans have a high degree of trust in vaccines. That is good news for children, judging by the aforementioned CDC report, dated Oct 13, 2017. (By the way, I seem to have missed any media coverage of this.)

The bad news is that some journalists remain susceptible to biased or incomplete narrative frames. That can color (and undermine) an argument in an op-ed column like Oppenheimer’s, or the reporting in a story. This tendency can also color attitudes towards the media.

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