Thoughts on Comments Regarding Unvaccinated COVID Victims (Op-Ed)

Ethics COVID Journalism Vaccination

There appear to be two schools of thought on how the death of someone who was unvaccinated and died from COVID-19 should be treated on social media. Journalists may find themselves in a no-win situation as they try to reconcile them.

Est. Read Time: 3 mins

Since late July, coronavirus case counts have risen throughout Pennsylvania, and tragically so have deaths from COVID-19. Currently, Northampton County is reporting an average of roughly one death per day as a result of the pandemic, with the majority of deaths occurring among unvaccinated holdouts who are more vulnerable to the highly transmissable Delta varient of the disease than fully vaccinated individuals are.

The disease isn’t only taking the aged and infirm, either. Many of this fourth wave’s victims are in their 30s and 40s, and leave behind young families, bereft over their loss.

These deaths feel different than the COVID losses of a year ago–when there was no vaccine–because they are different. In many cases, the individuals who are dying now could have been fully vaccinated long ago. For a variety of reasons, they chose not to be. Their choice is fueling more division among Americans, many of whom staunchly support the right to be unvaccinated against COVID, no matter the consequences.

There appear to be two schools of thought on how the death of someone who was unvaccinated and succumbed to COVID-19 should be addressed on social media, where differences over the politics of this pandemic so often turn ugly. One–to which a majority of users seem to subscribe–is that they be memorialized in the same way anyone else who has died is remembered. That is to say, those online community members would like no mention to be made of vaccination status, or of the possibility that it contributed to their demise. This almost seems counterintuitive, once the cause of death–COVID–is confirmed and made public.

The other school of thought is that these tragic, needless deaths can–and should–serve as critical reminders of the importance of being vaccinated against the coronavirus.

As an editor and comment moderator, as well as someone who believes in the COVID vaccine’s effectiveness, I’ve struggle with this situation. Clearly, the majority of Americans are no longer undecided about the vaccine, yet some still are. If there is any possibility that reading about someone young and seemingly healthy who died from COVID could persuade someone else to be vaccinated, isn’t it my responsibility not to prevent that from happening? On the other hand, I feel I have a moral responsbility to the family and friends of the deceased. I can imagine that reading comments by strangers along the lines of, “Why was your loved one so naive as to be unvaccinated?” or even “Hopefully this will motivate more people to get vaccinated!” would only add to the pain they are already experiencing. The children and grandchildren of the unvaccinated who have died will be particularly traumatized by their losses. I’m a journalist, but as a compassionate human being I don’t want to add to their pain if I can help it.

I have to make decisions, one way or another, but I’ll admit that I don’t know what the answer is to this problem.

Should journalists not only be silent when someone unvaccinated dies from COVID, but also silence those on social media who attempt to use their death to convince others of the need to be vaccinated? Or should we allow them the freedom to comment things that might be hurtful, if there’s a possibility that they will convince even one person to get the vaccine? I think this is a situation in which my responsibility to respect the individual and my responsibility to inform the community on issues related to public health and safety are in conflict, and there is no satisfactory middle ground, unfortunately. My head wants to help the community stay safe. After all, COVID not only affects individuals, but it is also a highly contagious disease. My heart, on the other hand, is loathe to allow comments that may appear disrespectful to the deceased and their loved ones to stand.

This seems like a no-win situation for journalists. You can write about the dangers of being unvaccinated in generalities, but nothing illustrates the danger of this horrible disease as effectively as a true account of a life needlessly lost. On the other hand, how can you help a community–let alone save it–if you lose your soul?

Josh Popichak is the founding publisher and editor of Saucon Source. He can be reached at jo**@sa**********.com.


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About the author

Josh Popichak

Josh Popichak is the owner, publisher and editor of Saucon Source. A Lehigh Valley native, he's covered local news since 2005 and previously worked for Berks-Mont News and AOL/Patch. Contact him at josh@sauconsource.com.

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