Should the media play a role in combating the anti-vaxxer movement?

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio declared a public health emergency in parts of Brooklyn due to an outbreak of measles in ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities. Measles was declared to be eliminated from the U.S. in 2000, but has since returned. This was the second recent headline about measles following an outbreak in Clark County, Washington.

Journalists have been giving the topic quite a lot of coverage, perhaps even to a fault. A recent article from Slate cautioned the media against blowing the outbreaks out of proportion. According to the piece, 91.5 percent of 3-year-olds do receive the necessary vaccines, a proportion that has remained constant since 2005. By covering these outbreaks and attributing them to the anti-vaxxer movement, news outlets are only giving this fringe group a stronger voice.

Another Slate writer countered that journalists need to respond to events like the measles outbreak because it is newsworthy. An outbreak of measles deserves national attention not only because of the implications of the outbreak, but because of the potential implications of the journalism itself. The article poses a key question: would certain local responses to outbreaks – like when Washington state tightened its vaccination exemption laws – have occurred without the attention the initial story received?

Additionally, the anti-vaxxer movement may be drawing more attention than some people realize. According to an article from the Guardian, a recent report found that “half of all parents with small children have been exposed to misinformation about vaccines on social media.”

Social media platforms have taken it upon themselves to limit anti-vaccine messaging. For example, Instagram has blocked the use of hashtags like #VaccinesCauseAutism and #VaccinesArePoison.

While some media is encouraging parents to vaccinate their children and blocking anti-vaccine rhetoric, these efforts are likely only reaching people who already believe in the science of vaccines.

In Williamsburg, New York for example, “many in the Orthodox community eschew traditional news coverage, sometimes deeming it biased against them,” according to an article in the Columbia Journalism Review. They do not follow mainstream news or have social media, closing them off from the pro-vaccination rhetoric that has attempted to help contain the recent outbreaks.

The editor of the New York-based blog Voz Iz Neias? (What Is News?), who identifies as Charedi Orthodox, spoke to CJR on the matter. He asserted that there is no religious reason to be exempt from vaccines. According to CJR: “He also uses his platform to give the outbreak ‘maximum coverage, so the community can be informed of the danger.’”

In the wake of the outbreak, media within the Orthodox community is being used to spread information about vaccinations in an attempt to counteract anti-vaxxer rhetoric.

There is an intense debate going on about how these outbreaks should be covered and whether or not social media platforms should be limiting misinformation surrounding vaccine  science. In some cases, highlighting the outbreak may bring more attention to a fringe group, such as the anti-vaxxer movement. In other cases, journalism within certain communities may be the most effective way to get people to change their beliefs.

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