White House voices frustrations over pandemic media coverage
Biden administration officials have started lashing out at media coverage of new guidance on masks and COVID-19 breakthrough cases among vaccinated Americans.
Some of the sharpest criticisms have come in the past week from White House deputy press secretary Chris Meagher and Ben Wakana, a member of President Biden’s coronavirus response team who tweeted that a Washington Post article was “completely irresponsible” for highlighting an outbreak in Massachusetts among vaccinated people.
Media experts say the challenge for some news outlets is accurately conveying the nuance of pandemic science to a frustrated public that’s now being asked to resume mask wearing in some parts of the country and as the delta variant sends cases soaring among the unvaccinated.
Kim Walsh-Childers, a professor at the University of Florida’s journalism school whose research focuses on news coverage of health issues, said some reporters do not always properly describe the “iterative nature of science.”
“The public does not generally understand the concept of mutation,” Walsh-Childers said. “Science is not a fixed body of knowledge … but the kinds of stories that really politicize, the kinds of stories that really hype the political conflict over the mask guidance, I fear that really plays into the whole tendency of many people to view the whole thing as a political issue when it’s not.”
The social media postings of some White House officials come as the administration is stepping up its efforts to call out COVID-19 disinformation.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said at a briefing last month that the administration has been alerting social media platforms about “problematic posts” — an effort that earned a sharp rebuke from a group of Republican lawmakers.
More recently, Biden officials told CNN that news outlets should also be called out, with one saying the coverage has been “hyperbolic and frankly irresponsible in a way that hardens vaccine hesitancy.”
But other media observers say there’s plenty of blame to go around.
Al Tompkins, a senior faculty member at the Poynter Institute, said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) didn’t help things with its release of data from Provincetown, Mass., to explain the new masking guidance.
“The White House and the CDC in particular did a miserable job last week,” Tompkins said. “The data [in Massachusetts] ended up having to leak out, which made it look like something nefarious was going on. That’s just a miserable way to share information from an administration that said it was going to be transparent.”
Tompkins said pushback on media outlets’ coverage of the Massachusetts outbreak and new mask guidelines is a way of deflecting from what he described as a poor messaging campaign from the federal government.
“If you were the White House and the CDC, what would you do?” he said. “I’d blame the media. Because that’s the only story they’ve got.”
The Post story focused on the outbreak in Provincetown, where CDC data indicated that three-quarters of the people infected were fully vaccinated, supporting the agency’s latest guidance about how the virus is now spreading.
Critics of the piece pointed out that Provincetown has one of the highest vaccination rates in the country, so cases of infection among vaccinated people are likely to increase as well. The Post story noted that very few of the vaccinated individuals required hospitalization or became seriously ill.
On Friday, White House principal deputy press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre brushed aside questions about the CDC data and coronavirus outbreak in Massachusetts, focusing instead on the administration’s vaccination message.
“And so the most important takeaway — and I want to be really clear about this because this is critical for all of you who report about this and for those who are watching. We should have — the takeaway is — we should have from this guidance and any follow-up reporting — is actually pretty simple: We need more people to get vaccinated. That’s the answer,” Jean-Pierre said during Friday’s briefing.
Jane Hall, a professor at American University who has written extensively about media coverage of the pandemic, said the White House is seeing firsthand the challenge of fighting misinformation in the modern media landscape.
“There are a number of people who are covering this story very well,” Hall said. “But the delta variant is frightening and there have been breakthrough cases. So to put in context and say the people who are getting ill are the people who are unvaccinated, I think, is what the White House is trying to get out there as the message.”
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