(Image: Mitchell Squire/Private Media)

Headlines highlighting concerns with the AstraZeneca vaccine, from blood clots to efficiency, have been front and centre for weeks.

One in The Sydney Morning Herald reads “I’m not anti-vaccine: why Genevieve is waiting for Pfizer” and last week articles about the young nurse who developed clots after getting the AstraZeneca vaccine dominated front pages. After hyping health concerns for weeks, the SMH posted its survey results on alarming levels of vaccine hesitancy.

Audiences are lapping up the negative news: since late February, the top 10 new articles on Facebook about the vaccine have centred around health concerns and prominent vaccine critics.

Hesitancy makes news

In those top 10 Facebook posts since February 17 that mention the vaccine, 7News’ “Yohan Blake ‘would rather miss Tokyo 2021 Olympics than take COVID vaccine'” takes fourth place, followed by One Nation’s “Say no to vaccine passports” piece and four articles on vaccine health concerns.

Professor at Queensland University of Technology’s Digital Media Research Centre Alex Bruns says outlets always look for controversy.

“Conflict tends to be the major focus of reporting because it’s a well-recognised news value,” he said. “There is some degree of attention to anything that might be uncertain, that might cause conflict, and that might result in public debate.”

While there was some overreporting of concerns around blood cots, there was also a very fine line between reporting and sensationalising.

“If that’s not handled very cautiously and carefully and ethically, then it might increase hesitancy and increase public concerns [and] probably cause some confusion,” he said.

Quest for info can fuel conspiracies

While overreporting blot clots are a concern, so is underreporting. During times of uncertainty, people search for information and answers and if they’re not readily available they may look in the wrong places.

“When there’s not really completely conclusive information out there, people start looking for explanations or even rumours and unfounded and unverified information in all the wrong places,” Bruns said.

“There’s very fertile ground at this point because audiences are really quite concerned and possibly more ready to believe stories that tell them that everything’s falling apart.”

The idea that everything is falling apart is a popular one, says lecturer in social psychology at Melbourne’s La Trobe University Dr Mathew Marques. People like bad news.

“People are often motivated to respond when there is something negative rather than positive,” he said.

Bad news combined with uncertainty can fuel conspiracy theories, although Marques says thankfully — and a little surprisingly — no major conspiracy theories around the vaccine in Australia had emerged.

“The government is usually the target of conspiracies because it’s a powerful authority figure and for some people they’d be the conspirators or the puppet masters,” he said.

The fact we haven’t seen more major conspiracies emerge was likely to be down to ethical news coverage, he says.

“There have been quite a few stories indicating the failures of the government … But there’s equally as many positive stories encouraging people to get vaccinated and providing clear messaging around vaccinations.”

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