The public and media interest in the Covid-19 vaccine in 2021 so far

February 8, 2021

Written by Benedict Nicholson
header of covid-19 vaccine

The Covid-19 vaccine began rolling out in some countries at the end of 2020, after receiving emergency approval from several governments. In the US, this included the Pfizer and the Moderna vaccines, while the UK is also using the AstraZeneca vaccine in addition to those two listed. 

One of the challenges of a mass vaccination effort in a pandemic is getting enough of the population vaccinated for it to make a tangible difference in stopping the spread of the disease. After an initial estimate of 60-70 percent was touted for effective herd immunity, experts have revised that upwards to closer to 80 or 85 percent as we have understood more about the disease. 

A big factor in vaccine proliferation is vaccine education, which is part of the reason that there have been so many efforts to educate the public on the benefits and safety of the shot, including the likes of brands such as Budweiser, whose campaign we wrote about this week

For that reason, we looked back at the top news of 2021 so far about vaccines, to see what the most engaging items of interest are for the public. For interested NewsWhip users, you can add the dashboard we used to export this data to your account here.

The top articles about the Covid-19 vaccine in 2021 

The chart below shows a timeline of the public and media interest in 2021 from January 1st – 26th, which is the period this analysis covers. 

Public and media interest in the Covid-19 vaccine in 2021

The engagement in both the media and public spheres has been fairly consistent, with more than 25k articles written on the average weekday, and approximately 4 million engagements to those articles most days, with a peak of 7 million on January 21st. 

The timeline encompasses all languages, so we then narrowed it down to just English to do some analysis of the top articles and publishers in the period we looked at.

The top vaccine articles of January 2021

The chart above shows the top articles about Covid vaccines in 2021 so far, and it highlights a clear problem. The top article, by a considerable distance, is about someone who died after having received the vaccination, even though there was no proven link between the two reported at the time. This article has more than double the engagements of any other article, showing the level of influence the piece had. 

This poses a difficulty when it comes to the problem of convincing people that the vaccine is safe and effective, and it’s a problem we’ve seen elsewhere, especially in the political sphere. 

The article is not misinformation, at least not in the way we traditionally think about the concept. It comes from a mainstream, legacy publication and reports the facts as they were known at the time, with the body of the article providing the required context.

The potential problem arises on the audience side, where the article headline serves as confirmation bias to those who are already primed to believe the worst, where any introduced ambiguity or doubt is enough to confirm the worst fears of the reader, particularly when shared in a like-minded community. The New York Times has noted readers sharing factual information in a distorted way before, and this would appear to be a similar situation.

And the top article is far from the only example, with two of the top ten articles correlating deaths with the vaccine being administered, and another two being about healthcare workers refusing to take the vaccine in the US. Both of these narratives have the potential to unravel vaccine confidence, particularly given the high level of immunity required for society to return to normal. 

These were not all of the top stories though, with some good news mixed in with these trends. We examined the top 100 stories and categorized them at a high level to see what the top themes were. 

The themes of the top 100 vaccine stories in 2021

The most commonly appearing story in the top 100 was about distribution of the vaccine, with 21 of the top stories being about the subject.

Pie chart of the top 100 vaccine stories by genre

The type of death story referenced earlier was the second most commonly appearing article with thirteen of the top 100 stories. We included reports of other adverse reactions in this count, including hospitalizations. There were 11 stories about what life after the vaccine would look like, eight making arguments in favor of the vaccine, and eight examining how the vaccine was interacting positively with the new strain.

We looked at the top stories for each of those top three categories to get some context beyond the top ten alone.

Chart showing the top ten articles about vaccine distribution

UNICEF had the top article about vaccine distribution, writing about how to get the Covid-19 vaccine to West and Central Africa. Good Morning America did a similar piece on vaccines being taken to remote parts of Alaska. 

The other distribution articles tended to have a political focus, and looked at the Biden administration’s plan to distribute the vaccine, and how it differed from what was happening during the previous presidency. The other theme was businesses helping with the distribution of the vaccine, with Starbucks and Amazon both written about in this context.

Chart showing the top ten articles about vaccine incidents in 2021

In terms of the top stories about vaccine incidents, the Chicago Tribune was by far the biggest, being nine times more engaged than any other piece on the subject. The same article appeared in the Baltimore Sun, but received far fewer engagements. 

The final major category was about what a post-vaccine world might look like, and focused on continuing precautions even once people have been vaccinated.

Top articles about life after the vaccine in 2021

The top article came from NPR, and had some 425,000 engagements. There were also pieces on students being required to have a vaccine before returning to campus, as well as warnings that transmission of the disease may still be possible in vaccinated people. 

The other articles in the top 100 did not have a significant enough grouping to analyze, but there were some pro-vaccine opinion pieces that received significant engagement, acting as something of a counterpoint to the negative articles.

It remains to be seen how successful the vaccine rollout will ultimately be, but it is important to gauge the conversations being had about the disease and the vaccination effort in order to develop the best practices to ensure vaccine confidence. 

If you’d like to monitor the media and public interest in the Covid-19 vaccine, take a tour of NewsWhip Spike

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