The media plays a major role in public policy formation. Media outlets drive public narratives and serve as a conduit for policy makers to deliver messaging. However, at times the media has a flawed understanding of the public’s interest, which in turn drives the policy narrative. This dynamic can serve to create public misinformation that can have detrimental consequences. With bad information serving as the dominant narrative, the public ends up on the losing end of the equation with bad policy that does not serve their needs. We are in just such a moment now with respect to media vaccine coverage.
Historically, the media has struggled to cover the nuances of vaccine hesitancy responsibly and this time is not different. The result – the proliferation of a potentially dangerous narrative that focuses an inordinate amount of attention on the vaccine hesitancy of communities of color and too little attention to the hesitancy of other demographic groups that pose a greater risk to our collective ability to conquer the virus.
Beginning in late 2020, evidence emerged of vaccine hesitancy on the part of communities of color. This story has consistently received coverage across major media outlets, been reinforced by policy makers, and has even been reinforced by the health care community. And recent reports indicate that the hesitancy narrative is driving public policy. A county official in Jefferson County Alabama reports that state officials have decided not to distribute vaccines in majority-Black neighborhoods because they expect those communities will be vaccine hesitant.
To be sure, vaccine hesitancy is real and represents a threat to communities of color that have been hardest hit by the pandemic, and the issue rightfully deserves our attention. However, the media (and even public health officials) have repeatedly reinforced this narrative of hesitancy by citing data that mistakenly compares vaccinate rates to total population, as opposed to eligible populations. Communities of color have been vaccinated at rates equal to or above their share of age-eligible populations, even though those rates are often well below population levels. That underrepresentation compared to share of the population is a major problem, but the main cause is bad eligibility policy and historic impacts of social determinants of health—not hesitancy!
Furthermore, data has recently emerged showing a demographic shift in vaccine acceptance, especially since the election. Yet the media has been slow to respond to this shift and continues to report on the hesitancy angle with a disproportionate attention on people of color. Since November, we have seen a marked increase in vaccine acceptance by African Americans.
 Gil, Steven. 2020. Journal of Science & Popular Culture. Volume 3 (2) pp. 125–131.
 Funk C, Tyson A. Intent to Get a COVID-19 Vaccine Rises to 60% as Confidence in Research and Development Process Increases. Pew Research Center. December 2020
 Shapiro, A. Alabama Official on Vaccine Rollout: ‘How Can This Disparity Exist In This Country?’ All Things Considered. NPR. March 9, 2021