Vaccination Stories Aren’t Easy (But You Can Still Get Them Right)

As his first year of college was just beginning, South Dakota student Beau Keeter contracted bacterial meningitis and died. The story was covered in papers across the country because the sudden loss of a young life is a tragedy. But we know what happens when the media covers a story about a vaccine-preventable disease.

It seems, though, that editors aren’t fully aware of what the potential blowback when they cover vaccine-related stories. And the editors of South Dakota’s Daily Republic appear to be in that state right now.

Last week, they published an editorial claiming “Vaccination stories aren’t easy.” That’s true, especially since immunology and infectious diseases are complex and the science is nuanced. But that’s not what they meant. They meant that people were displeased with their coverage.

Criticism came from those who advocate for vaccines and want the media to cover the topic in a way that presents the truth rather than needlessly stokes fears. The editors write:

Jim Keeter, the father of 17-year-old Beau Keeter, questioned the effectiveness of the vaccination. That’s when some of our readers became upset with our newspaper, saying that we didn’t do our part to ease the concern that there may be “a bad batch” of vaccinations, as Keeter suggested.

This criticism is fair. While it is understandable that a father would be heartbroken and want answers as to why his child died from a disease he was vaccinated against, floating easily disprovable theories is irresponsible journalism. It would have been easy for the Daily Republic to perform a simple 10-second Google search (as I did) about bad batches of vaccines and to find out that most vaccine recalls of batches or lots occur before the vaccines are sent out because the FDA detects irregularities in the vaccine. A more plausible theory, and one we would never expect a grieving father to answer to, is that his son was either a non-responder to the vaccine (since vaccines are not 100% effective). Another is that his son had a strain of bacterial meningitis not covered in the recommended vaccine, such as meningitis B. Either way, it is not a grieving father’s responsibility to fact check for the paper about why his son was vaccinated and still died.

For their part, however, the Daily Republic believes they did their due diligence in fact checking this point. They are wrong, but they do defend themselves by stating:

In our defense, we attempted to contact the state epidemiologist for the story, but he didn’t immediately return our calls. Then, as soon as we could, we followed up with that medical professional, who told us the meningococcal vaccine has an effectiveness of up to 95 percent within the first year. Within five years of the vaccination, the effectiveness hovers around 75 percent.

In this instance, we reported the opinion of a relevant source and went with what we had at the time. We felt it was a developing story that we could expand on later, and we did.

While attempting to contact the state epidemiologist seems like a reasonable course of action for a journalist, it isn’t. Pitting the theory of a grieving father against the facts as (theoretically since there was no reply) stated by an expert is just another example of false balance. So even if the epidemiologist would have responded, the disprovable theory about bad batches would still have appeared, and we would have been emotionally pulled to it because we all grieve with Jim Keeter for his son. We understand that we would all like there to be a better villain than bacteria for a senseless death.

The paper did, however, include information about the effectiveness of the meningococcal vaccine (assuming that Beau succumbed to serogroups A, C, W, or Y and not B or that he had received both vaccines). However, you will note that they consider this “the opinion of a relevant source.” Sorry, Daily Republic. That’s not how science works. The medical professional in question gave you the data borne through scientific study, not his personal musings on what he believes.

Furthermore, their assertion that they would continue to cover the developing story in the future is a massive failure of their responsibility to the public. Rather than partially informing and mostly misinforming the public, putting forth rumor and innuendo, the story would have been better framed in a thousand different ways.

It was unfair for the public to assume that Jim Keeter was an irresponsible parent who did not vaccinate his son. Reporting on the vaccination status of Beau was responsible. However, the public needs answers about how a vaccinated young adult can go away to college, still contract meningococcal disease, and die. They offered no answers in their reporting, and absent having those answers, they should not have suggested that a “bad batch” of vaccines was to blame.

Normally, I tell journalists that if they must report false information about vaccines (and here, they genuinely did not have to do so), that it is the journalists’ responsibility to correct that misinformation with their own words and not to present an opposing “opinion” from an expert. They are not reporting on the best location for a city park or a new parking law. Scientific reporting has facts. They should use them.

The Daily Republic (like many news outlets) remains defensive about their reporting on immunizations. They end their piece with:

We’ve also had a reader call each of the past few years following annual the flu shot clinic who has told us to stop running photos of kids who looked scared while getting shots. The reader tells us it discourages vaccinations.

Though, we want everyone to know, as we stated in an editorial earlier this year, we’re fully in favor of vaccinations. We know they’re extremely beneficial, as most medical professionals agree.

We know that getting vaccinations can be as simple as a small poke, but we also know vaccinations are a touchy subject of discussion.

Every year, someone tells them that they are stoking fears about vaccines, and it appears that every year they show children afraid of vaccines. But don’t worry. They are in favor of vaccines.

I have little sympathy for journalists who brush off the concerns of a public who are simply asking them to stick with the facts. The public deserves better.