A Case of Different Media Reactions to a Single Piece of News

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: The Skeptic's Guide to Health, Medicine, and the Media

By Roy Benaroch, M.D., Emory University

History is witness to news headlines creating hype over infectious diseses that otherwise may not have caught attention.
Time and again, it has been proven that media has the power to influence the masses and fashion a targeted reaction. How have some of the news stories affected the world?

Person reading a newspaper.
A single CDC report received various media reactions and interpretations .
(Image: Sebra/Shutterstock)

The CDC Press Release on the Flu Vaccine Effectiveness

Experts had predicted that the 2017-2018 flu season would be rough. Headlines in January 2018 were dominated by stories of young people dying of the flu. Some of them continued to highlight the importance of getting vaccinations. For example, WGN Chicago’s “Even Healthy Children at Risk of Dying from Influenza, Experts Say” supported vaccination. The story quoted an infectious disease specialist that said, “Around 80 percent of the influenza deaths that occur in pediatric patients occur in those who are not vaccinated.”

By early February, the news was even worse. Bloomberg’s headline read, “Flu is Causing 1 in 10 American Deaths and Climbing.” The story did mention that the statistics belonged to both cases of winter pneumonia and the flu. So, one in ten was somewhat exaggerated as the flu was not the only cause of those cases of death. But an interesting case was a press release by CDC that elicited varied reactions and interpretations.

A  press release published by the CDC on February 16, 2018, said, “Interim Estimates of 2017-18 Seasonal Influenza Vaccine Effectiveness, February 2018.” CDC had collected data from five study sites across the U.S. to investigate the effectiveness of the flu vaccine. The results showed that the overall efficacy of the flu vaccine against all current strains was 36%. The effectiveness of the vaccine for specific age groups was higher. For example, for children, this number went up to 59%. It meant that if a child got vaccinated, his/her chance of getting a flu illness requiring medical attention reduced by 59%. The study did mention that the numbers were just preliminary statistical estimates.

Media Reactions to the CDC Press Release

Now, let’s review media reaction to this material released on February 15, 2018. The Wall Street Journal’s headline was “Flu Vaccine Less Effective Than Earlier Estimates.” The lowest number estimated by previous studies was 10% in Australia, so that doesn’t seem right.

Pediatrics female doctor giving a young girl a vaccine shot in the arm
There were different reactions about the effectiveness of the flu vaccine. (Image: Zivica Kerkez/Shutterstock)

Newsweek’s headline read, “Was Getting the Flu Shot Worthwhile? Vaccine Only 25% Effective Against the Most Common Strain.” The article focuses on the 36% effectiveness of the vaccine and concludes that there is a 64% of getting flu, even if you have been vaccinated. But these figures have a different implication. Vaccine effectiveness does not indicate the chances of an individual getting the flu. Instead, it shows that, compared to the unvaccinated people, the vaccinated person is less likely to get the illness by 36%. The authors got the numbers wrong by assuming they meant there was a 64% chance of getting flu.

This is a transcript from the video series The Skeptic’s Guide to Health, Medicine, and the Media. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Time magazine ran a simple headline, “CDC Estimates This Year’s Flu Vaccine is Only 36 Percent Effective,” correctly reporting the findings.

Several news headlines looked at the report with more optimism. KOB4 from Albuquerque ran a story headlined “Flu Vaccine Falls Short, but Helps.” One of the rare articles that focused on the effectiveness of the vaccine on children was Boston’s WBUR, with the headline “Young Kids Are Getting the Best Protection from Current Flu Vaccine.”

Learn more about diet, health, and power of words.

Two Opposite Readings of the Same Story

An interesting case emerges with the comparison of The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times headlines. Both of them referred to the same press release published on the same day. The former reported, “Flu Vaccine Less Effective Than Earlier Estimates.”  And the latter said, “The Flu Vaccine is Working Better Than Expected, CDC Finds.” How did two major, well-respected news organizations cover the same story from two opposite points of view?

There is no clear reason why the two articles reached different conclusions based on the same figures. But no matter what the reason was, the consequences are more significant. As a nation of skimmers, the American audience will get a different impression of the effectiveness of the vaccine based on those headlines and not the stories.

A person receiving a vaccination in their arm.
Two media organizations had opposite interpretations of the CDC Report. (Image: MsMaria/Shutterstock)

The New York Times story made a comparison between the 36% effectiveness of the flu vaccine to overall seatbelt effectiveness. According to studies conducted in the 1970s, seatbelts prevent injuries 40% of the time. Like seatbelts, which reduce major injuries to minor ones, the flu vaccine also makes people with the flu experience less severe symptoms, although it might not prevent the flu.

The 2017-2018 flu season was indeed a severe one, but not so bad as some had predicted. Although people in the U.S. are more at risk of getting the flu than Ebola, some people still think the flu vaccine is too risky and insist on not getting vaccinated.

There is a significant amount of evidence that shows the vaccine is safe, but we can’t measure the risks of health issues accurately. Our judgment is also colored by the health media, which do not always clarify these issues correctly.

Learn more about the role of media in improving health.

Common Questions about A Case of Different Media Reactions to a Single Piece of News

Q: Do flu shots really work?

According to a press release published by CDC in 2018, the effectiveness of flu shots was 36% for all current strains in 2018. The effectiveness of the vaccine for children was 59%.

Q: Is the flu shot safe?

There is overwhelming evidence that flu shots are safe. But our judgments are affected by the health media because they do not always clarify issues correctly.

Q: Is the flu shot effective for children?

According to the CDC report published in 2018, the flu vaccine’s effectiveness on children was 59%. It doesn’t mean that they have a lower chance of getting the flu. It means, compared to unvaccinated children, they have a 59% lower risk of getting the flu.

Q: Can the flu shots make us immune us to the flu?

The flu shots don’t always mean that we will not get infected. It means that if we get the disease, we will be less likely to need medical attention.

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