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Headlines lacking context exploited by anti-vaccine activists to wrongly suggest danger, study finds

New York(CNN Business) News organizations are at risk of "creating false connections and misinformation" when they write headlines that suggest a link between vaccinations and deaths or other health problems where one does not necessarily exist, according to a new study published by the non-partisan non-profit organization Advance Democracy.

The findings, which were provided to CNN Business, show that headlines that, while sometimes factually accurate, are posted with "little to no context" are spread online and "weaponized" by anti-vaccination groups on Facebook where they amass thousands of interactions. Three articles from local news sites gained more than 800,000 interactions on Facebook, the study found.

One of these local news headlines, for example, read, "Health care worker dies after second dose of COVID vaccine, investigations underway."

"[Anti-vaccination activists] are using these headlines to confirm the false information they believe about the dangers of vaccines, which is just scientifically wrong," Daniel J. Jones, the president of Advance Democracy, told CNN Business.

"What these headlines do," Jones added, "is give these anti-vax groups fodder to say, 'See, I told you so.'"

Advance Democracy describes itself as an "an independent, non-partisan organization that conducts global investigations to promote accountability, transparency, and good governance."

The Advance Democracy report cited headlines from NBC News and Reuters. It also mentioned headlines from the right-wing outlet Fox, which is less surprising given the significant volume of misinformation pushed by the network. The network's top host, Tucker Carlson, has fanned the flames of vaccine skepticism on his nightly show.

While vaccine hesitancy has been falling, the articles cited in the study were published during a period in the rollout when a sizable portion of the country was still skeptical about the vaccine's safety. The results of a CNN poll conducted in January showed that 30% of Americans said they will not try to get vaccinated. An Associated Press poll published in February showed a similar rate of hesitancy in the US. Among those who said they will definitely not get vaccinated, 65% said it was because of concerns over side effects, even though clinical trials show they're safe and effective in preventing Covid-19.

"In an environment where there is still so much vaccine hesitancy, placing so much emphasis on these one-off events busts serves to reinforce fear in people who are already afraid of the vaccine," said Dr. Jonathan Reiner, a professor at the George Washington University School of Medicine & Health and CNN medical analyst.

One story published by NBC News in February featured a headline that initially read, "78-year-old woman dies at California vaccination site after being inoculated." Another headline, also published by NBC News in February read, "Virginia woman dies shortly after receiving coronavirus vaccine."

Both headlines were updated after publication to point out that there was no sign of a link between the vaccine and death.

NBC News did not provide a comment, but a spokesperson did point out the outlet has a vaccine information site and also shared that there is no plan to publish any more of these stories in the near future.

The Reuters headline featured in the report was published March 2 and said, "Woman dies from brain hemorrhage in Japan days after vaccine, but link uncertain."

A Reuters spokesperson defended the headline, telling CNN Business that the story "directly reflects the language in the Japan health ministry's statement, which we covered because it was newsworthy and in the public interest."

When pressed as to why Reuters believed the story was newsworthy, given that the outlet conceded it was not certain whether the death was related to the vaccine, the Reuters spokesperson replied, "We believe this story was newsworthy because, as the ministry said in its statement, 'It may be a coincidental case, but there is a need to gather more information.'"

The headlines from Fox also suggested a link between coronavirus vaccines and death. One January 23 headline read, "California resident dies several hours after receiving COVID-19 vaccine." That headline was eventually updated to say that the "cause of death remains unclear."

A separate March 11 headline said, "Utah Medical Examiner says 39-year-old mom's death 4 days after taking COVID vaccine is 'temporally related.'" Advance Democracy pointed out that "the article was not based on medical experts, but largely on the family's non-expert opinion that there was a link."

A spokesperson for Fox did not respond to requests for comment.

Reiner called the headlines featured in the report "irresponsible."

"We know from very well run clinical trials that the overall safety of these vaccines is really excellent," Reiner said.

Reiner noted that more than 100 million doses of the coronavirus vaccines have been administered in the US.

"When you administer that many vaccinations other events will also happen to patients by sheer chance," Reiner said. "Very likely people have gotten into car accidents the same day, or have fallen off their bicycle, or even have had a heart attack the same day as a vaccine by pure chance."

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