The Press Council considered whether its Standards of Practice were breached by an article published by the Herald Sun online on 10 December 2020 headed “Allergy warning over Pfizer COVID vaccine”.
The article reported “People who suffer severe allergic reactions have been advised by UK regulators not to take the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine after two British nurses who received the jab suffered allergic reactions.” The article went on to report, under the sub headline “SIX PEOPLE DIED DURING PFIZER TRIAL”, that “Six people that took part in the Pfizer-BioNtech COVID-19 vaccine clinical trial died – including four who had received a placebo shot but the vaccine was unlikely to be the cause of their death.”
In response to a complaint it received, the Press Council asked the publication to comment on whether the sub headline SIX PEOPLE DIED DURING PFIZER TRIAL and Facebook post complied with the Council’s Standards of Practice, which require publications to take reasonable steps to ensure that factual material is accurate and not misleading (General Principle 1); and presented with reasonable fairness and balance (General Principle 3). The Council noted the sub headline may imply that six people died as a result of receiving the Pfizer vaccine, despite the article later stating “[the vaccine was] unlikely to be the cause of their death.”
The publication said it stood by the accuracy of its headline, which when read in context with the opening paragraph immediately below the headline, was not misleading. It said the figures reported were contained in a 53-page report to the United States Food and Drug Administration, and that this context was made clear in the article. It also said the sub headline was a secondary part of the story and was placed well into the main article.
The Council accepts that the sub-headline ‘six people died during Pfizer trial’ is accurate based on a report delivered to the United States Food and Drug Administration, as set out in the article, because they did die during the period of the trial. However, the Council considers that the clear implication of this statement is that the six deaths occurred or could have occurred as a result of receiving the vaccine.
The Council accepts that headlines usually refer to only one aspect of a story and the accurate position was established in the first paragraph of the article. However, the obligation on publishers to take reasonable steps to ensure factual material is not misleading will vary in the circumstances. The Council considers it is higher in the context of reporting on deaths during vaccine trials in a pandemic. By implying in the headline that the deaths were or could have been due to the vaccine, the publication failed to take steps to ensure factual material is not misleading in breach of General Principle 1 and for the same reasons the publication also breached General Principle 3.
This was compounded by the Facebook post linking to the article, which began “Six people died during Pfizer’s late-stage trial of the COVID-19 vaccine”, and used a similar headline but did not include a statement in the post itself that the deaths were not due to the vaccine. The Council noted the need for publications to exercise great care in statements made in any social media posts without context or clarification.
Relevant Council Standards
This Adjudication applies the following General Principles of the Council.
“Publications must take reasonable steps to:
1. Ensure that factual material in news reports and elsewhere is accurate and not misleading, and is distinguishable from other material such as opinion.
3. Ensure that factual material is presented with reasonable fairness and balance, and that writers’ expressions of opinion are not based on significantly inaccurate factual material or omission of key facts.”