Complaints we heard: Concerns about reporting on COVID-19 vaccines reaches fevered pace

How news organizations report on vaccines has been the subject of numerous complaints submitted to the National NewsMedia Council over the years, and perhaps unsurprisingly, the volume of those concerns has increased over the last year.

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, some individuals have expressed concern that any reporting on vaccine side effects could lead to vaccine hesitancy and, therefore, all critical coverage should be avoided. Others have alleged that the information reported is ‘biased’ and therefore should not be trusted.

Although the majority of such complaints did not indicate grounds to support a breach of journalistic standards, they do underscore the importance of providing accurate, relevant information to readers in a timely manner.

The NNC recently reviewed a complaint from one reader about the accuracy of the information presented about a COVID-19 outbreak in a community on the west coast. While the NNC found no grounds to support a complaint about a breach of journalistic standards, it did consider the matter to be of interest to the wider public.

The article in question reported on a recent COVID-19 outbreak in a retirement facility. The story relied on a memo circulated by the company to its staff.

The complainant expressed concern that the article inaccurately attributed the outbreak to unvaccinated individuals. They stated that subsequent contact tracing efforts were not able to verify the source of the outbreak, and argued that the article contained personal, identifying information about the unvaccinated individuals.

The NNC found no evidence to support the complainant’s claim that the article contained inaccurate or personal, identifying information about the unvaccinated individuals.

Standard journalistic practice allows journalists to select the sources they deem credible. Information may become available after a story is published, and readers may find alternative sources to support their views. However, this fact alone does not indicate a breach of the journalistic standard of accuracy.

The NNC accepted the news organization’s response that the letter provided relevant information on an event in the public interest at the time of reporting. It also accepted that an attempt was made by the news organization to reach out to the retirement facility for further comment. As noted in the article, that request was unsuccessful.

For these reasons, the NNC found no grounds to support a complaint about a breach of journalistic standards. It also underscored the fact that as a self-regulatory body that promotes responsible journalism and free expression, it strongly defends journalists’ ability to report on these important issues in the public interest.