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The Media Is Too Clueless and Sensationalistic to Properly Explain Breakthrough Covid

By hyping scary figures and alarming statistics while overlooking crucial context, many news outlets are creating a misleading picture of the dangers the delta variant poses to the vaccinated.

A crowd of people, some masked and some unmasked, walk down a busy street.

“The war has changed.” That was the message from a recent internal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study about the delta variant, the Covid-19 strain that’s currently dominating the news amid fears of its transmissibility. Delta is spreading like “wildfire” right now, according to one Colorado doctor, and threatening to disrupt the country’s reopening by hitting the parts of the country with large, unvaccinated populations particularly hard, often with tragic consequences.

Media coverage of the delta variant has largely consisted of blaring alarms. The New York Times and The Washington Post each ran stories highlighting particularly troubling claims in the internal CDC study. “The delta variant of the coronavirus appears to cause more severe illness than earlier variants and spreads as easily as chickenpox,” reads the start of the Post’s account. The Times, meanwhile, put the chickenpox claim in the headline; its story began by highlighting a slew of fears: “The Delta variant is much more contagious, more likely to break through protections afforded by the vaccines and may cause more severe disease than all other known versions of the virus.”

Other recent stories about Covid-19 have been similarly bleak in their tenor. One NBC headline noted that “at least 125,000 fully vaccinated Americans have tested positive” for Covid-19—a very large and scary number! Worrying reports circulated about a Covid outbreak in Provincetown, Massachusetts, among the vaccinated. (The CDC report was based, in part, on data from that outbreak.) The message was clear and concerning: Not only was the pandemic far from over, but the delta variant is also dangerous for vaccinated Americans as well.

These stories largely failed to contextualize the delta phenomenon properly. Yes, the variant’s transmissibility has led to a number of breakthrough infections among the vaccinated. But the United States has administered nearly 350 million doses of the vaccine. So while 125,000 breakthrough cases is not insignificant, it represents a tiny fraction of those who have been fully vaccinated. Only 1,400 fully vaccinated individuals have died of Covid-19, an astonishingly low number. The vaccine demonstrably aids in the prevention of both hospitalizations and deaths. The Biden administration has, unsurprisingly, found the media’s alarmist tone to be frustrating. Ben Wakana, a communication aide on the White House’s Covid response team lit into the Times for tweeting that “the Delta variant is as contagious as chickenpox and may be spread by vaccinated people as easily as the unvaccinated.”

“The media’s coverage doesn’t match the moment,” one senior administration official told CNN’s Oliver Darcy. “It has been hyperbolic and frankly irresponsible in a way that hardens vaccine hesitancy.” Mediaite, meanwhile, reported that the administration was characterizing the sensationalist coverage as a cheap and dirty quest “for eyeballs”—the idea being that news outlets, starved for readers and viewers post-Trump, are desperate for a zingy crisis to get people paying attention again. (Those with memories of the way the media handled the 2014 Ebola outbreak might, understandably, be having some painful flashbacks as well.)

The administration is right to be frustrated: Doom-mongering coverage of the delta variant’s impact on the vaccinated is creating an unnecessary level of anxiety and, in some cases, panic. But the challenge of covering the pandemic in this moment is highlighting a number of larger journalistic failings. For starters, it requires a degree of subtlety and nuance that many journalists struggle to convey. Delta’s effect on the vaccinated is very different from its impact on the unvaccinated—in the latter case, the risks are much more severe. By blurring these lines, outlets are creating a misleading perception of the risks posed by the variant, particularly for the vaccinated.

From a public service perspective, it’s rather egregious for news outlets to highlight the risks of breakthrough infections without also highlighting the benefits conferred by the vaccine. The unfortunate subtext of many of these stories is that getting vaccinated doesn’t matter—you may get Covid-19 anyway. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. Yes, you can still get Covid-19, but your chances of becoming very ill or dying are significantly lower than if you were unvaccinated. That remains the biggest Covid-19 story of the year, and it arguably doesn’t get enough attention.

Journalists are, in many cases, particularly bad when it comes to science and statistics; in the case of these stories about the delta variant, you see the same sort of rampant innumeracy that haunts the discussions of marginal tax rates. While 125,000 breakthrough cases is a big number to contemplate, the real story is how small that figure is in proportion to the total number of vaccinated Americans. It’s possible to lead with the good news (the overwhelmingly small number of hospitalizations and fatalities from breakthrough infections among the vaccinated) instead of the large scary statistic (the number of breakthrough infections would fill 900 Starbucks!) The calculus, perhaps, is that not enough people would click on reassuring news for it to be worth it.

That’s not to say that the media has cornered the market on blame. The administration has rightly highlighted the role that social media companies have played in allowing misinformation about the vaccine to spread. And the CDC has repeatedly tripped over itself in its effort to get timely and simple messages to the public (the presentation obtained by outlets last week was titled, “Improving communications around vaccine breakthrough and vaccine effectiveness”). But these realities make it all more crucial that news outlets exercise good judgment and restraint, and resist the temptation for grabby headlines about the dangers posed by the delta variant for the unvaccinated, if they don’t want to make the muddle of misinformation swirling around Covid-19 at this moment even more incomprehensible.