How European media framed Covid-19 vaccines

July 29, 2021 • Latest stories, Research, Specialist Journalism • by

 

As the world adjusted to the new norm of Covid-19 vaccinations, EJO editorial offices in the United Kingdom, Germany, Poland, Portugal, and Ukraine looked at how the media in their countries reported on the development and rollout of the vaccines.

Analysis parameters 

Editors reviewed various aspects of the media reports on the vaccines and vaccination campaigns, including the key areas and attributes of focus. The analysis periods vary from country to country but are all based on the same events. The first is the day the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine was approved, which for the UK was December 2 and 3, 2020 and for the European Union (EU) was December 21 and 22, 2020.

The second period focuses on the approval of the AstraZeneca vaccine – December 30 and 31, 2020 in the UK and January 29 and 30, 2021 in the EU. EJO editors were free to choose other points in time, depending on key developments in their countries – such as AstraZeneca’s suspension.

Similarities and trends 

Our snapshot analyses reveal broad similarities in the media’s response to Germany’s Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, while, across the board, the UK’s Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine received comparatively more critical and negative coverage.

However, it is also clear that national factors play an important role in media framing, especially considering that vaccines were developed by specific countries.

 

UNITED KINGDOM

 

In the UK, the EJO examined coverage of the vaccines in three prominent publications with diverging political agendas and target audiences. We looked at the left-leaning broadsheet the Guardian, Mail Online – the online edition of the right-wing middle-market newspaper the Daily Mail, and the online version of the conservative broadsheet newspaper The Telegraph.

In particular, we reviewed coverage in early December (2 and 3), when Mail Online declared that the UK had won the race in becoming the first country worldwide to approve of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine; late December (30-31), when AstraZeneca’s now-controversial vaccine earned its approval, and March – the month in which several countries, excluding the UK, suspended the Oxford vaccine amid concerns about its link to blood clots and thrombocytopenia cases.

Finally, we observed reportage from early June (9 and 10) to gauge the changing perspectives on each vaccine, the vaccine campaign in the UK, and Britain’s perception of how its campaign compared to that of Europe’s.

‘Historic moment’ 

While the Covid-19 vaccine was a hot topic across UK media outlets, AstraZeneca and Pfizer-BioNTech’s garnered the most discussion and reports. The EJO’s analysis kicked off with the announcement that the Pfizer-BioNTech’s had gone through a fast-track emergency approval process that made them the world’s frontrunners in the mass immunisation project.

While Mail Online was keen to characterise the UK’s swiftness as a sign of the country’s superiority in Europe, the Guardian gave a more nuanced assessment of the situation, articulating through quotes that there was “confidence things would now be better,” but also highlighting the risks involved in rushing the process. “Public confidence would be more easily won with more time scrutinising the data,” wrote one Guardian columnist.

AstraZeneca: a prickly topic

The UK’s own Oxford vaccine was approved later that month. Heralded as inexpensive, easy-to-use, and easy to store, it was unveiled by media outlets with a fair degree of pride. “There is no doubt that AstraZeneca is a good vaccine, and that it is desperately needed”, the Guardian reported. The paper published a particularly positive piece on workers at the factory that produced the vaccine, celebrating ‘Happy Vaccine Day’.

But reports of AstraZeneca’s suspensions in Europe due to blood clot fears were met with concern and, in the case of Mail Online, a degree of outrage. The Eurosceptic publication claimed that new reports showed the risk of blood clots were higher with the Pfizer-BioNTech jab, branding AstraZeneca’s suspensions “political”, “hypocritical” and a “mass revolt”.

The Guardian’s take on the matter was more measured. It highlighted the chaos caused by the vaccine suspensions and suggested that the concerns around AstraZeneca’s safety were unsubstantiated and the result of an “abundance of caution”.

Emerging agendas 

Continuing its theme of using assessments of vaccine campaigns in Europe to peddle its Euroscepticism, Mail Online cited a survey in which the majority of respondents expressed the view that the EU’s vaccine rollout was poorly managed, and that ‘most Germans’ now believed that the EU was broken.

The Guardian and The Telegraph’s vaccine coverage during this period focused instead on some of the ethical questions tied to the global immunisation campaign – particularly whether the UK should be donating vaccines to other countries.

 

GERMANY

 

In Germany, the EJO team analysed articles that were published on the online platforms of leading German media: the centre-left Sueddeutsche, the liberal-conservative FAZ and the conservative tabloid Bild. We looked at coverage from:

  • December 21 and 22, 2020 (EU’s approval of Pfizer-BioNTech);
  • January 29 and 30, 2021 (EU’s approval of AstraZeneca);
  • March 15 and 16, 2021 (Germany’s suspension of the AstraZeneca vaccine);
  • and June 3 and 4, 2021 (developments in media framing).

The vaccine of “Hope”

The response to the arrival of Pfizer-BioNTech was overwhelmingly positive. An article on Sueddeutsche, published on December 21, highlighted Pfizer’s vaccine development in “record time”. “Looking back on the pandemic, hopefully soon only this date will count: the Monday before Christmas, when the turning point in the Corona pandemic was initiated in Europe”, declared the FAZ in response to AstraZeneca’s arrival. While another article framed the vaccines as a “sign” of Christmas hope, coming “a few days before the feast of the birth of Jesus Christ as that light that so many people have longed for in difficult times”.

The AstraZeneca “disaster”

However, German media outlets took a less positive view of the approval of AstraZeneca’s vaccine in their January 29 reporting. On the following day, they mentioned the contract dispute between the vaccine’s manufacturers and the EU, stating “EU vs. AstraZeneca: We didn’t order that!”.

According to a January 30 report, EU representatives “would like to understand what AstraZeneca did last autumn”. The company must, Sueddeutsche insisted, “finally stop its mystery-mongering”. They also expressed concerns about the vaccinations’ effect on older people.

Bild reported on the “vaccine disaster”, highlighting challenges with Moderna and suggesting that the AstraZeneca vaccine rollout was overshadowed by the dispute between the EU Commission in Brussels and the pharma giant.

By mid-March, the media was taking a more drastic tone as the government revealed their decision to join other countries in suspending the AstraZeneca vaccine. FAZ referred to it as the “AstraZeneca disaster”. But a Sueddeutsche commentary suggested that while it was “right to investigate the reports of incidents following AstraZeneca vaccinations…. it must not be overlooked how well the vaccine works”.

Reporting becomes less focused

In early June, articles that refer specifically to certain vaccines or manufacturers made up only a small part of the overall reportage in the selected media outlets. And those which were published, focused mainly on vaccinations for children and the end of vaccine prioritisation, which allowed everyone in Germany to apply for their jabs.

 

POLAND

 

In Poland, editors analysed the centre-left Gazeta Wyborcza and the centre-right Rzeczpospolita. We specifically looked at coverage on December 21, 2020, when the EU authorised the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine; January 29, 2021, when the AstraZeneca vaccine was approved by the EU; and March 15 and 16, and June 9 and 10 to gauge developments and trends.

As in all other European countries, media in Poland extensively covered the topic of Covid-19 vaccines. The two analysed media outlets were supportive of vaccinations, avoiding investigative pieces and negative commentary on the quality and medical aspects of the vaccines. Wyborcza was more critical of the Polish government’s role in organising vaccination campaigns, highlighting inefficient distribution and chaotic decisions.

Hope and moral concerns

When the EU authorised Pfizer-BioNTech in December 2020, Wyborcza supported the view that vaccines are a critical part of the strategy to take us out of the pandemic and back to normal life. They even published an appeal to grandparents, urging them to take the vaccines.

Rzeczpospolita was less liberal with their comments, but they did describe the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine as ‘pioneering’, ‘safe’ and ‘efficient’. They also published an interview with a well-known virologist, who confirmed that the vaccines were generally safe and efficient. And, as well as mentioning the Vatican’s moral concerns about the vaccines – they highlighted Pope Francis’ announcement that he was -planning to receive the Pfizer-BioNTech jab in January.

Good vaccine, bad producer, inefficient EU  

When the EU authorised the AstraZeneca vaccine in late January 2021, “Wyborcza” suggested that AstraZeneca was safe, but not as efficient as some of the other brands on the market. However, they also reported on the EU Commission’s dissatisfaction with deliveries of the first two first vaccines – Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna.

Rzeczpospolita focused on the European Medicine Agency’s (EMA) report that endorsed Pfizer-BioNTech for older people while highlighting concerns from the Koch Institute, Germany’s global health hub, which did not recommend AstraZeneca for people over 65.

But it was revelations about the previous EU-BioNTech deal, made in August 2020, that received the most coverage. In several of their reports, including their interview with a health MP, the Rzeczpospolita was very critical of the EU’s position and strategy – particularly their lack of negotiation skills. The outlet also criticised AstraZeneca’s purely commercial approach and mentioned that Johnson and Johnson’s tests indicated a 66% efficiency while pointing out the 90% plus effectiveness rates of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.

AstraZeneca suspended in several countries, but still rather safe

In March 2021 both papers covered the suspension of the AstraZeneca vaccine in European countries and the fact that Poland had decided to keep the vaccine. Wyborcza focused on the change of attitudes toward immunisation, with an almost 20 per cent drop in the number of Poles eager to take the jab, from 70 per cent at the beginning of the roll-out to 51 per cent by March 2021.

Nonetheless, Wyborcza continued its pro-vaccine stance, using international and domestic experts and scientists from reputable organisations such as the World Health Organization (WHO) and EMA to brand AstraZeneca as safe and beneficial.

Rzeczpospolita also reported on AstraZeneca’s suspensions across Europe and published the outcome of the EMA investigation into the matter. However, they appeared to be keen on promoting calm and steered away from underlining potential risks. At the same time, they covered clinical tests of the new generation Moderna vaccine, which, they highlighted, was easier to transport and store.

Decline in Covid-19 cases and decline in coverage 

By the time we analysed reports on June 9 and 10, it was clear that there had been a significant drop in the number of articles about Covid-19 vaccines. Wyborcza explored the issue of the necessity of immunisations for children. They published Pfizer-BioNTech’s announcement about a second wave of research, focused on small children and covered the Polish government’s concerns about the delivery and trustworthiness of AstraZeneca’s vaccine. It was reported that many Poles decided not to take a second dose of this vaccine.

Meanwhile, in the Rzeczpospolita, vaccines were not covered directly but were only mentioned in relation to “Covid passports” and the Covax initiatives. One of their articles discussed the legal aspects of compulsory vaccination.

 

PORTUGAL

 

In Portugal, EJO editors analysed Covid-19 vaccine coverage on December 21 and 22, 2020; January 19 and 20, 2021; March 15 and 16, 2021; and the first two days in June 2021.

We found that, overall, Portuguese media applied a positive frame to the EU’s approval of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, though some articles in the right-leaning Observador were critical of the delay in their vaccination programme – especially compared with the speed of the US’ rollout.

A gift of hope

The tabloid, more conservative, Correio da Manhã (CM), dedicated a lot of space to discussions about the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine’s ability to protect people from the UK Covid variant, with every article concluding that there is no reason to doubt its effectiveness. One report cited a Pfizer-BioNTech scientist describing “the beauty of mRNA technology” and claiming that, if needed, the German Lab is “able to produce a new vaccine in six weeks”.

As with other media in Europe, the festiveness of Christmas was also evident in the media’s framing of the European approval of the BioNTech vaccine. Headlines like “There is a vaccine … this is the hour of hope” were used in opinion articles on Christmas Eve.

The daily national Público newspaper, dedicated many articles to the scientific innovation behind the vaccine development, focusing specifically on mRNA. In fact, the outlet was the most supportive of Pfizer-BioNTech’s approval.

AstraZeneca: against all odds

The contract dispute between AstraZeneca and the European Commission (EC) was also at the heart of Portuguese media coverage. CM, for example, noted that AstraZeneca “is shrouded in great controversy, after the British laboratory recently announced that it will not fulfil the supply of doses contracted with the European Commission”.

Observador was more willing to articulate the outrage and grave concerns about the EU’s decision to block exports of the Covid-19 vaccines produced within its borders. The outlet used military terminologies such as “dropping the bomb” and “using all the weapons available” in its reports.

Portuguese media also zoned in on the contention between AstraZeneca and the German vaccination commission, particularly concerning the vaccine’s effectiveness against the UK variant. While Público reported that the “arrival of AstraZeneca vaccines was … clouded by doubts about their effectiveness”, Observador noted AstraZeneca’s response, which guaranteed “the effectiveness of the vaccine in people over 65 years old – contrary to the indication of the German vaccination commission”.

The eventual suspension of the AstraZeneca vaccine provoked mixed sentiments in the media, ranging from the more sober and cautious reaction of Público to the Observador’s overt defence of the vaccine, with one of their articles declaring that “Oxford University ensures AstraZeneca vaccine is safe”.

Focus on the national vaccination campaign

By early June, Portuguese media, like those in other parts of Europe, had become more focused on the national vaccination programmes, with only residual attention given to specific manufacturers. The end of vaccine prioritisation, which allowed an increased number of people to get their shots, was among some of the main topics covered by outlets.

UKRAINE 

 

The Ukraine editor chose three national outlets – the pro-Western Ukrainska Pravda and LB.ua, and the tabloid pro-Russian Strana. As the country is not an EU member, the analysis periods differed from those proposed:

  • December 21-22, 2020 (the EU’s approval of Pfizer-BioNTech);
  • February 22-23, 2021 (Pfizer-BioNTech was approved in Ukraine);
  • February 24-25, 2021 (the first vaccination with AstraZeneca/ Covishield was made in Ukraine);
  • May 31 and June 1, 2021 (AstraZeneca’s approval in Ukraine and developments in immunisation framing).

Most of the media coverage was centred on the vaccines that were introduced in the country. So, mainly AstraZeneca/Covishield, Pfizer-BioNTech, and Sinovac. Moderna and Johnson and Johnson’s were mostly mentioned in short news pieces as part of foreign coverage. While the two pro-Ukrainian websites, Ukrainska Pravda and LB.ua, generally stuck to objective coverage of all the brands, the pro-Russian Strana included overtly critical views of some vaccines – particularly Covishield.

During the analysed periods, the selected outlets covered the vaccines mainly through news pieces and investigative articles. However, Strana.ua also included some opinions – particularly critical ones.

The coverage of the arrival of the India-produced Covishield by Ukrainska Pravda and Lb.ua was rather constructive and explanatory. While Strana, at least in the earlier period of its analysis, published critical opinion pieces – particularly of Covishield and its Indian origin. Their articles pointed out that this vaccine is not the same as AstraZeneca – which they also branded as one of the least efficient jabs. Furthermore, they accused the Ukrainian government of failing to provide Ukrainians with quality Covid-19 immunisation options.

These negative frames are also evident in the news and analytical coverage by Strana’s staff writers. For example, there was a recurring representation of Covishield as “AstraZeneca for poorer countries”.

In contrast, the coverage of Pfizer and Moderna was defined by neutral descriptions and focused on foreign news, their efficiency rates, and Ukrainian’s perspectives and willingness to take these vaccines.

 

 

Project coordinator: Roman Winkelhahn, TU Dortmund University

Contributors:

United Kingdom: Sarah Karacs, EJO fellow at Freie Universität Berlin

Germany: Tina Bettels-Schwabbauer, TU Dortmund University

Poland: Michal Kus & Adam Szynol, University of Wroclaw

Portugal: Ana Pinto-Martinho and Décio Telo, ISCTE- University Institute of Lisbon

Ukraine: Halyna Budisvka, National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy

Opinions expressed on this website are those of the authors alone and do not necessarily reflect or represent the views, policies or positions of the EJO or the organisations with which they are affiliated.

If you liked this story, you may also be interested in: The economic impact of Covid-19 on European media 

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