As nations around the world continue to battle outbreaks of Covid-19, and many long for a return to normal life, ‘vaccine hesitancy’ has become a major talking point. Increasingly, frustration is being expressed by those who have been vaccinated, and who wish that others would be just as enthusiastic about the procedure.
What many overlook is the vast range of factors that are causing vaccine hesitancy. To blame all of it on ‘selfishness’ or ‘conspiracy theories’ is to mostly miss the point — and therefore to exacerbate the problem. Name-calling and finger-wagging is never productive.
Look at the discussions taking place on social media and elsewhere — actually take the time to lean in and listen — and you will discover quite nuanced and varied reasons for people’s doubts about the vaccine.
Some of those you’ll encounter have been consistently ‘anti-vax’ long before the Covid-19 vaccinations were developed. Those convictions can be very deeply held.
Others express mistrust in the messaging of political leaders. They point to constantly changing rules and broken promises; coercive ad campaigns; and doubts about once-secure freedoms ever being fully restored.
Some are simply principled libertarians, believing that a medical decision is a matter to be discussed between the individual and their physician, and not a matter for collective debate.
And yes, there are some absurd conspiracy theories out there that are deeply counterproductive. Truth be told, some of those ideas will probably never go away, given how conspiracy theories tend to behave.
But here’s another overlooked factor: the role of the media.
An honest and independent media is a non-negotiable of any healthy democracy. Without a truthful media, a nation’s leaders cannot be properly held to account, and its citizens cannot be properly informed.
Research on this would be fascinating, but I would bet on a strong correlation between media distrust and vaccine hesitancy. People who feel that the media have been dishonest about issues in the past will naturally find it hard to believe what the media says about issues in the present — and that includes the vaccine.
Whether they are right or wrong in that distrust, it is a serious phenomenon that must be comprehended and not simply shrugged off.
Early outbursts of ‘Covid hysteria’ among the media class can be forgiven. When the outbreak began, none of us knew much about Covid-19 or how it would ultimately impact the world. Now we know far more about the virus. It is deadly, and it is serious. But it is nowhere near as diabolical as the media has led us to believe.
Want proof? A recent poll found that people believe on average there is a 38 per cent chance of dying from the Delta strain. This perception is so far from reality that it is both laughable and tragic. It has ruined many friendships, and left too many people cowering in debilitating fear.
Many who are vaccine hesitant have seen all of this unfold. They feel betrayed by the journalist class who are supposed to be giving us accurate and proportionate information, but who instead have capitalised on clickbait and newspaper sales.
But media distrust predates Covid. Consider three other issues where the corporate press has been less than honest, and has undermined the public’s trust.
First, there was the allegation that Donald Trump was a Russian asset — a ‘Manchurian candidate’ who was installed in the White House with the likely help of collusion from Vladimir Putin. This narrative was told and re-told by the American press for the better part of three years. Here in Australia it was repeated verbatim by some of our most ‘trusted’ outlets.
Then the Mueller report was released in April 2019, exposing these claims as baseless. It turned out that the Russian collusion myth had its origins in a mostly-fabricated dossier paid for by Hillary Clinton’s election campaign. Those false claims were then subsequently leaked to a media all-too-eager to report that Orange Man Bad.
Then there was the Hunter Biden laptop fiasco. With just weeks to go before the 2020 U.S. election, the New York Post published bombshell evidence from an abandoned laptop apparently belonging to Joe Biden’s son Hunter. NYP’s revelation was that Hunter had acted as the family’s bagman, collecting cash from shady business deals in Ukraine and China, and that Joe knew all about this.
Soon afterwards, a whistleblower independently verified these claims about the Bidens. He maintained that Hunter had little relevant experience for those business ventures, and that he had gained power and influence only because his father was Obama’s Vice President, giving business partners lucrative access to the White House. Critical observers could see a clear case of family corruption and the monetising of America’s second-highest office.
Nevertheless, America’s corporate press first ignored — and then sought to discredit — the evidence incriminating the Biden family. Twitter and Facebook likewise showed their hand by censoring the story from their platforms.
This unprecedented response from Big Media and Big Tech was not owing to any countervailing evidence. Rather, it was obvious that their preferred presidential candidate Joe Biden needed help at a crucial moment in the election cycle. Repeating an old smear, the mainstream press dismissed the evidence as a ‘Russian disinformation campaign’.
The Hunter Biden story broke two months ago. Most of the media ignored it or called it “Russian disinformation,” despite no evidence that it was.
Now that the election is over, the story, it seems, is fit to print.
Who’s up for a little before and after?
— Drew Holden (@DrewHolden360) December 11, 2020
In fact, it was all true. To date, no one has been able to explain how or why Russians would photoshop countless half-naked photos of Hunter in compromising settings, along with an intricate web of text messages and emails that incriminate the family — all perfectly planted at a computer repair shop in Delaware.
Finally, there is the ‘lab leak theory’. At the beginning of the pandemic, anyone who suggested that the virus leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology was dismissed by the prestige press as a conspiracy theorist.
The idea that Covid-19 may have leaked from a lab in Wuhan, China has gained mainstream traction of late.
It can be easy to forget that, a little over a year ago, the idea was derided as a vile, senseless conspiracy theory.
Let’s revisit. ⤵️
— Drew Holden (@DrewHolden360) May 18, 2021
Then several months ago, all of this changed. One by one, the media outlets that had defamed and insulted those who followed the trail of evidence conceded that indeed, the ‘lab leak theory’ was plausible — even the most likely origin of the virus.
All of these stories have major geopolitical implications far beyond just the United States. Australians were paying attention — and they noticed that the big players in Australian media simply parroted the mainstream narrative rather than interrogating it and going after the truth. Indeed, this is just a sampling of the brand of media bias now entrenched in Western corporate journalism.
At the time, it may have been comforting — even entertaining — for those who wanted their biases confirmed about the evils of Donald Trump, the innocence of the Biden family, and the lunacy of the ‘conspiracy theorists’. But that comfort and entertainment, besides being wildly incorrect, came at a steep price.
Everyday people feel lied to and betrayed by the mainstream media. Many have switched it off entirely, assuming that if the New York Times, CNN, the Washington Post, The Guardian or Australia’s ABC is saying it, it’s probably not true — whatever it is.
Again, everyday people might be wrong about this, but they are more than justified in feeling this way. Trust is earned. If it’s betrayed, it’s hard to get back.
This is the unspoken reason so many remain vaccine hesitant. Decrying those people as conspiracy theorists is only adding fuel to the fire, repeating the same errors that brought us to this moment.
Where to from here? In any relationship, if trust is broken, it can be regained — but not without remorse or hard work.
Corporate media outlets might rebuild some of their lost trust by admitting where they have been wrong about key global events — and indeed, where they have been disproportionate in their reporting on the pandemic. Enough remorse and enough honesty into the future could change not just the media landscape, but the cultural landscape too.
It is in everyone’s best interests that we have an honest media. When trust in this key institution breaks down, the social fabric is torn and everyone is negatively impacted. Vaccine hesitancy is only the latest proof of this.