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Australian Press Council criticises Herald Sun for ‘misleading’ Pfizer Covid vaccine subheading

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<span>Photograph: James Ross/AAP</span>
Photograph: James Ross/AAP

A subheading saying six people that took part in the Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine clinical trial died was not fair or balanced, the Australian Press Council has found, because it could lead readers to believe the vaccine was the cause of death.

The subheading was on an article published in the News Corp publication the Herald Sun on 10 December that carried the headline “Allergy warning over Pfizer Covid vaccine”.

Related: Victorian officials dismiss claim of 'secret modelling' showing daily Covid cases of 1,100 next week

While six people did die during the clinical trial, four had received a placebo shot, which means they received a harmless substance that contained no vaccine. None of the six deaths were due to the vaccine.

The Herald Sun stood by the accuracy of its subheading, which it argued was not misleading when read in context with the paragraph immediately below that explained four doses were placebo.

It said the figures reported were contained in a 53-page report to the US Food and Drug Administration, and that this context was also made clear in the article.

But the Australian Press Council said in the context of a global pandemic it is especially important for publications to ensure headlines are not misleading even if further context is provided in the story.

“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,” the Council’s adjudication said.

“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.”

The Council also said the misleading potential was compounded by a 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.

Related: Australia warned it won't achieve herd immunity unless it deals with vaccine hesitancy

It comes as almost one-third of adult Australians say they are unlikely to be vaccinated against Covid-19, according to a poll published by Nine Entertainment on Wednesday. Doubts about side-effects topped the list of reasons for vaccine hesitancy. Many people also believe there is no rush to take the jab while the international borders remain closed.

The survey found 15% of people said they were not at all likely to receive the vaccine, while another 14% said they were not very likely.

The president of the Australian Medical Association, Dr Omar Khorshid, said he is also concerned by reports from vaccination hubs that there is some vaccine hesitancy towards the AstraZeneca vaccine in particular.

In May, the federal government heeded the advice of its independent health expert advisory body, the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (Atagi) to avoid giving the AstraZeneca vaccine to under-50s amid fears of a potential link to unusual blood clots.

Khorshid said the vaccine is safe and effective but a combination of poor public health messaging and alarmist media reports about the rare clots had left some people fearful.

“I think that a lot of damage was done with the Atagi decision and the way it was communicated by the government,” he said.

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