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Negative Imagery in Vaccine-Related News Coverage

PLoS One; ePub 2018 Jun 27; Wu, Shah, Haelle, et al

Nearly 1 in 8 images included in vaccine-related news coverage contains negative features, which may be selected without careful consideration of the potential negative impact on public health initiatives regarding vaccination. This according to a recent study that sought to quantify the frequency of images used in online news coverage of vaccines that may convey varying sentiments about vaccination. In order to capture a breadth of vaccine-related news coverage, including international sources, researchers searched the following terms: “autism and vaccine,” “flu and vaccine,” and “measles and Disneyland.” They developed a coding tool that classified images as negative (eg, screaming child), positive (eg, happy child), neutral (eg, vaccine vial), or irrelevant (eg, picture of journalist). They analyzed 734 images and found:

  • Of the images which featured vaccines and/or a medical encounter (322), 28% had negative features and 30% had positive features.
  • The remaining 137 images (43%) were neutral.
  • There was no statistically significant difference between proportions of negative and positive imagery for each pair of search terms, which may be a reflection of random image selection.

Wu AG, Shah AS, Haelle TS, Lunos SA, Pitt MB. Choosing the perfect shot—The loaded narrative of imagery in online news coverage of vaccines. [Published online ahead of print June 27, 2018]. PLoS One. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0199870.


The way that journalists tell a story about vaccines is crucial in terms of conveying an accurate message. This study looked at the message shown by the imagery, not the content. Images are powerful in that they inducw emotions and can be highly influential. Although most images were neutral, and negative images were similar in number to positive images, there was still a significant number (1 in 8) of negative images which have the potential to dissuade people from vaccination. Journalists and editors can use these data to help them carefully provide accurate and supportive health information and avoid conveying a negative bias without intention.—Sarah Rawstron, MB, BS, FAAP, FIDSA; Pediatric Residency Program Director, The Brooklyn Hospital Center, NY; Clinical Associate Professor, Icahn School of Medicine, Mount Sinai, NY.