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Why vaccine messaging from public...

Why vaccine messaging from public health officials and media isn’t connecting with so many Mississippians

By: Editor - August 19, 2021

The COVID pandemic has laid bare the utter collapse of public trust of those in the mainstream media and many in the public health establishment.  For something that is as generally mathematically sound as the COVID vaccine is in terms of effectiveness and safety, there is a huge swath of Mississippi and America that is saying “no thank you” because they fundamentally don’t trust the voices delivering the messages.

In this case that doesn’t mean they’re wrong, but it is critical to understand why they’re thinking what they’re thinking.  It’s the key to get through to them.  And again, every time I write something on COVID, I try to use this platform to tell people to get vaccinated.  It’s safe.  Mathematically, it’s been shown to largely prevent hospitalization and death, which is candidly all most people care about. (#VaxUpYall)

The Media

It’s hard to believe that the local and national mainstream media could perform any worse than they did in the 2020 election campaign (particularly coverage in Mississippi on the Espy vs. Hyde-Smith race).  They have.  They’ve hit bedrock.  Here in the state, the media establishment remains bound and determined to weaponize COVID at every turn against their political enemies.  I use the word enemies intentionally as they are perpetually in political campaign mode like they’re fighting a political opponent.  Press conferences have become a disgrace.  It has been beyond embarrassing in recent weeks to see the “where’s Tate?” and “why won’t he tell people to get vaccinated” gaslighting stories when he’s done so repeatedly publicly for months including on camera, repeatedly, every time he’s been in public the last few weeks (every two or three days).

He got vaccinated on Facebook live in front of his 145,000 followers.

The completely systemic bias among the media to weaponize COVID in Mississippi is as sad as it is predictable.  And the goal posts will always be moving for them – there’s no stopping point.  There’s no point at which the elite media establishment will relent.  They don’t care one whit about changing Mississippi – they (and their donors) just care about changing who controls it.

Then the media sits around and wonders why subscriptions/viewership/impact is at a record low.  It’s because people fundamentally don’t trust them – and they shouldn’t.  Not with the way they’re acting right now.  They only seem interested in using their platform to whipsaw public officials and preen and virtue signal for the national blue checkmark buddies how they’re “showing up the rubes in Mississippi”.  What’s clear is that the media in Mississippi is authored largely by elitists and for elitists.  Huge swaths of both ends of the political spectrum just don’t connect with the “stories” the Mississippi mainstream media tells.  The blue checkmark crowd has fundamental contempt for a huge swath of average Mississippians (both black and white) and the events they choose to cover and how they cover them shows that every single day.

Public Health Establishment

Public health, particularly in Mississippi is a really hard job.  It’s made of mostly of good people who try hard.  But we’re now officially way past the point where finger-wagging and and shaming and treating people like they’re morons is going to help convince those that haven’t done so already to get vaccinated. If that strategy worked, everyone would already be vaccinated long ago.  It’s not like Mississippi was the healthiest state in the country and all of the sudden decided that we were going to stop following public health advice.  COVID (particularly Delta) is certainly more acute in terms of urgency, but we are and have been near the bottom nationally in just about everything associated with preventable disease.  Public health officials acting otherwise is problematic.

It’s not “news” that people really don’t like being talked down to like they’re stupid through outlets they don’t trust.  That’s the primary public health weapon employed at the moment.  People like Thomas Dobbs and LouAnn Woodward are good people with important messages.  In my opinion, they’re not wrong about vaccines.  But they are both getting bad PR advice.  From shutting down Facebook comments to shunning particular media outlets and their audiences, they seem to be under the illusion that a perfectly curated media presence is the recipe to get people vaccinated.  It’s not.

There’s a law in economics called the law of diminishing marginal returns.  The short version is that too much of a good thing eventually becomes bad.  The first couple of Oreos taste really good, but the 20th one will make you throw up.  That’s where we are right now.  The message “you oughta get vaccinated or you’re stupid” works a little bit . . . at first.  But after the 20th or 30th time you hear the same message delivered with a “I know more than you do” attitude (even if that’s true), it makes you just want to turn it off.  It’s time for a different tactic and more of a “bedside manner” that involves vulnerability and empathy with folks they may not agree with.  That’s not a new concept for doctors.

Let’s be real honest.  The public health establishment has been wrong about a lot of things on COVID. Again, that doesn’t mean they’re not right about vaccines.  I’ve said before that COVID will make a fool out of anyone over time.  The public health messages have evolved and continue to evolve.  “The risk to the US population is low” then “Clean surfaces” then “Wearing a mask will protect you” and then “get vaccinated so you don’t have to wear a mask” then “double mask” then “wear a mask even if you have been vaccinated” and now “get a third shot“.  The messages like the understanding of the virus continues to change.  But that doesn’t mean that people who don’t immediately fall into line of today’s message du jour from public health experts are unreasonable or don’t have meaningful questions.

The media and the public health establishment have created a framework where if you have the slightest questioning of today’s doctrine, you’re to be ostracized and treated like a kook or a heretic.  And for many Mississippians on both sides of the political spectrum, they’ve just said “enough”.

Black/White Divide

There’s an interesting coalition of the unvaccinated.  It’s not just “red state rednecks” as the media establishment would have you believe.  The medical professionals I talk to say that there’s a cultural divide among black and white about why they’re unvaccinated.  You’ll hear some in the African American community talk about legacy mistreatment of their community in medical testing and lack of trust for something that got invented during the Trump administration.  Remember what our Vice President said.

Rural white voters just fundamentally don’t trust the messaging from the mainstream media and really really resent the politicization and weaponization of COVID during the presidential campaign and since.  It’s a visceral reaction, but they’ve had enough.

Optically, the map says that lower vaccinations rates are probably more pronounced in more rural areas of the state that trend toward a white demographic (though often with more sparse populations).  But the overall vaccination doses by race are almost perfectly aligned with the state population demographically which generally means that equal numbers of white and black Mississippians, by proportion, are still unvaccinated.  There’s also no meaningful delineation of death numbers along racial lines (39.2% black and 54.4% white).

How to Fix

Connecting with those that haven’t been connected with (assuming that’s still the goal) is going to require some tacit recognition and admission that the guidance has not always been clear and (at the very least messaging) mistakes have been made.   I think the public health establishment is capable of that.  Unfortunately, I’m pretty sure the mainstream media isn’t.

Public health needs to find a way to bypass traditional media filters and get to unvaccinated folks more directly.  Talk through platforms that have been shunned or ignored.  Quit doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.  Find trusted messengers in the community (faith leaders, political figures, sports figures, community leaders, etc.) and let them do the talking for you.

Y’all Politics has started the #VaxUpYall PSAs as a way where we can get folks from across the spectrum to encourage folks through their own platforms to get vaccinated.  It’s the right thing to do.

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