The current media environment aggravates this dangerous tendency because media figures are supposed to have emphatic takes on everything immediately. Disastrous! Brilliant! Those are the responses that get clicks and eyeballs. It is a whole lot less sexy to say “We actually don’t have enough information to tell,” or even “It’s a close call.”
This plays out all the time in breaking-news situations, most recently with the pause in the distribution of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. People with zero expertise in public health, immunology or any other relevant body of knowledge pounced. “Dr. Fauci, the CDC and the FDA are all wrong!” Well maybe they are, but novices do not have most of the information needed to make an informed opinion.
Let’s consider all the things pundits did not know as the news broke. Many decided that the Johnson & Johnson pause would aggravate vaccine hesitancy and therefore do more harm than good. But do they know:
Which people are vaccine hesitant and why?
If, for example, the people at issue are illogical MAGA types who have adamant biases against the vaccine, the Johnson & Johnson news will likely have zero effect. And sure enough, a large contingency of those who won’t get vaccinated fall into this category. A recent poll shows that 43 percent of Republicans are determined not to get a shot. A steady segment of the population remains staunchly anti-vaccine. Perhaps some people are impervious to logic. (This doesn’t mean we give up on them. As the administration figured out, the way to convince people is not through the media, but through conversation with people they know and trust.)
Might the pause actually increase confidence?
That is what Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, argues. An initial poll suggests he is right. (This might in part be because of the nonstop appearances Fauci made on Tuesday to explain the pause.)
Does new information change minds on vaccines, or does it confirm people’s predispositions?
Confirmation bias is now a well-known phenomenon. (Also watch out for the “illusion of causality,” when people assume there is a causal connection between two unrelated events.) Despite a year of nonstop information about the necessity of wearing masks, for example, many people still believe mask-wearing is some kind of ruse. Media types often expect the public to follow the same logical progression they do. When it doesn’t, it confounds them — over and over again.
Do we know all the reasons for the pause?
It’s possible the primary reason was to inform physicians that the normal treatment for blood clots, a blood thinner called heparin, may make a patient’s reaction worse or kill them.
So where does this leave us?
When news of this sort breaks — especially when it involves topics about which political pundits have no prior experience — several things should happen. Experts in the field, not political reporters, should step forward to provide insight. Reporters should be asking the right questions, not pontificating based on incomplete data. They should be wary of their own confirmation bias and other cognitive mishaps. They should inform the public as to how the decision was made and why.
In short, the media needs to know what it does and does not know before it grades government officials on their performance. Chances are, Fauci, the world-renowned expert in immunology, has better judgment about the ethical and scientific issues surrounding a pandemic.