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Journalists and Science

Boundary-making in the media coverage of the 2009 pandemic flu vaccine’s safety in France
Les journalistes et la science. La circonscription des débats dans la couverture médiatique de la sécurité du vaccin contre la grippe pandémique de 2009 en France
Jeremy K. Ward


The theoretical debate about the role played by the media in controversies over science and technology has mostly died out since the beginning of the 2000s. The emergence of a neo-institutionalist sociology of journalism, in particular the application of Pierre Bourdieu’s field theory to this subject, provides sociologists of science with new tools to make sense of journalists’ work in controversies. This paper draws on this literature to shed light on the media coverage of the controversy over the safety of the 2009 pandemic flu vaccine. Using semi-structured interviews with journalists who covered this issue for the French agenda-setting news-media and content analysis of the coverage proposed by a sample of these media, it analyses how journalists circumscribed debates regarding this subject in relation with their sources. It shows that almost all journalists endorsed the dominant view that the “antivaccine movement” lacks any scientific credibility even if they disagreed on whether this judgment applies to all forms of vaccine criticism. It presents the various ways in which these judgments were translated into concrete boundary work in their coverage: By selecting among vaccine critics those to give voice to, in their presentation of these sources and in their framing choices for this issue. By analysing this boundary-making work, this paper contributes both to sociology of science and to sociology of journalism.

Les journalistes et la science. La circonscription des débats dans la couverture médiatique de la sécurité du vaccin contre la grippe pandémique de 2009 en France

Le débat théorique portant sur le rôle des médias dans les controverses sur les sciences et techniques s’est éteint depuis le début des années 2000. L’émergence d’une sociologie néo-institutionaliste du journalisme et l’application de la théorie des champs de Pierre Bourdieu à ce sujet propose aujourd’hui de nouveaux outils aux sociologues des sciences pour comprendre le travail des journalistes dans les controverses. Cet article se fonde sur cette littérature pour éclairer la couverture médiatique de la controverse sur la sécurité du vaccin contre la grippe pandémique de 2009. À partir d’entretiens semi-directifs et d’une analyse de la couverture médiatique de ce sujet par un échantillon de médias, il analyse comment les journalistes ont circonscrit le débat sur ce sujet en relation avec leurs sources. Il montre que presque tous les journalistes ont adhéré à la représentation dominante que « le mouvement antivaccin » manque de crédibilité scientifique sans pour autant s’accorder sur l’application de ce jugement à toutes les formes de critique vaccinale. Il présente les différentes manières dont ce jugement s’est traduit dans des pratiques concrètes de travail des frontières dans leur couverture : par la sélection des sources, la présentation de celles-ci et dans leurs choix de cadrage de cet enjeu. En analysant ce travail de construction de frontières, cet article se veut à la fois une contribution à la sociologie des sciences et à la sociologie du journalisme.

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  • 1 This study was supported by the Institut Hospitalo-Universitaire (IHU) Méditerranée Infection, the (...)

1What role do journalists play in controversies over science and technology?1 This question was at the core of a heated debate at the turn of the 1990s among social scientists working on science and technology. To summarize the debate crudely, it opposed two factions. On the one hand, researchers interested in the “Public Understanding of Science” insisted that there were crucial differences between the professional ethoses of journalists and scientists –“two cultures”, see (Wahlberg & Sjoberg, 2000). For them, these differences account for the presence in the media of discourses and actors that deviate from what they present as scientific consensus. Journalists’ definition of objectivity as balance leads them to see scientific controversies where there aren’t any and to give the same exposure to actors with unequal scientific legitimacy (Anderson, 2002; Conrad, 1999; Dunwoody, 1999; Friedman et al., 1999; May, 2005; Nelkin, 1987; Rowan, 1999; Seale, 2003; Stocking, 1999; Weigold, 2001). Because of this and their simplistic definition of “facts”, journalists tune out the fundamental uncertainties at the core of scientific knowledge and overlook actors who present a more nuanced position (Conrad, 1999; Williams et al., 2003). With their sensationalist approach to science, they tend to overestimate risks (Kolb & Burkhardt, 2007). They also lack the time and training to properly understand the subjects they cover which leads them to believe false claims (Conrad, 1999; Einsiedel, 1992; Nelkin, 1987; Stocking, 1999; Weigold, 2001) and to fall prey to basic cognitive biases (Stocking & Gross, 1992).

  • 2 Some authors combine these two different uses of the “two cultures” hypothesis, see for instance Do (...)

2On the other hand, researchers closer to social-constructionist and political sociology’s approaches did not see journalists as particularly heterodox-friendly. They also adhered to this “two cultures” hypothesis. But for them, this has the opposite effect of setting aside real uncertainties and controversies2. Journalists do not give voice to dissenting views on most issues. They tend to favour an image of science as permanent progress and to brush aside the uncertainties and risks at the core of socio-technical controversies (Fahnestock, 1986; Nelkin, 1987; Singer & Edreny, 1993). More often than not, they explicitly disqualify heterodox actors rather than help them (Mooney, 2005; Zehr, 2000). They rely too heavily on top scientific journals, official experts, the government and the industry (Nelkin, 1987; Einsiedel, 1992; Conrad, 1999; Weigold, 2001; Nisbet et al., 2003) which makes them particularly vulnerable to manipulation by dominant actors (Berkowitz, 1992; Ericson et al., 1989; Hansen, 1994). Journalists are therefore actually biased in favour of dominant science rather than heterodox views (Conrad, 1999; Dunwoody, 1999; Waddell et al., 2005; Williams et al., 2003).

  • 3 Of course, STS researchers have produced more subtle analyses of the role of the media in a variety (...)

3This theoretical debate about whether, how and how much journalists act as facilitators of public controversies on science and technology was vibrant during the 1990s but has died out since. This is partly due to theoretical limits inherent to the “two cultures” approach. Because it homogenises both scientists and journalists, it does not provide the theoretical tools necessary to make sense of the differences in coverages of a same topic from one media to the other; the diversity in overall media coverages from one topic to the other and the unequal visibility given to the various sources available on a given subject3. Here, we will focus on the latter.

4Recent advances in the sociology of journalism and the media shed new light on this issue. The emergence of a neo-institutionalist sociology of journalism provides sociologists of science with new tools to make sense of journalists’ gatekeeping work and to overcome the limitations of the “two cultures” approach.

  • 4 The study of media coverages of vaccination has produced one of the most ideal-typical examples of (...)

5The purpose of this paper is to shed light on journalists’ role in controversies over science and technology by drawing on these recent works and through the case study of the pandemic flu vaccination campaign organized in France in 20094. More specifically, I focus on the media coverage of one aspect of the debates surrounding this campaign: the controversy over this vaccine’s safety. This particular point of contention is the most significant when it comes to the relationship between journalists and science.

  • 5 See also online annex,

6I focus the analysis on how journalists circumscribed debates regarding the safety of this vaccine, a gatekeeping practice that constitutes a challenge for the “two cultures” model. This entails partly setting aside the issue of the diversity in media coverages of this subject, which I have explored elsewhere (Ward, 20155). My argument is based on two types of data: Semi-structured interviews with journalists who covered this issue for the French agenda-setting news-media and the coverage proposed by a sample of these media. This work being part of a wider project on this controversy, I also draw heavily on other data pertaining to the actors who criticized this vaccine and those who promoted it (Ward, 2015, 2016).

7I start with a theoretical section reconstructing the mechanism explaining this gatekeeping and boundary-making practice as it is presented in neo-institutionalist sociology of journalism. I then present the context of the 2009 pandemic flu vaccination campaign in France and my data. In the rest of the paper, I expose the study’s results. I show firstly that almost all journalists endorsed the dominant view that the “antivaccine movement” lacks any scientific credibility even if they disagreed on whether this judgment applies to all forms of vaccine criticism. This led some journalists to feel frustrated that they had to cover a subject they felt did not have scientific grounds. I then present the ways in which these judgments translated into concrete boundary work in their coverage: By selecting among vaccine critics those to give voice to, in their presentation of these sources and in their framing choices for this issue. By analysing this boundary-making work, this paper contributes both to sociology of science and to sociology of journalism.

Moving beyond the “two cultures” approach: A neo-institutionalist approach to science journalism

The emergence of a neo-institutionalist sociology of journalism

8Sociology of journalism and the media flourished in the English-speaking world in the decades following the Second World War. One of the main and consistent results emerging from this strand of research was that treatment of the news was very homogeneous across the media, especially in the USA (Ryfe, 2006). The reason lied in the similarities in organisational structures across the industry and in the emergence of institutions working to build and unify the profession. This homogeneity could be seen in the common adherence to two norms: The definition of objectivity as a balancing of contradicting points of view and the need to avoid being overtaken by competition (Kaplan, 2002). So when concerns about the “public understanding of science” gained traction in the English-speaking academic world at the turn of the 1990s, researchers turned to these early works to make sense of the gap that some perceived between scientific knowledge and its depiction in the news.

  • 6 Especially in the USA.
  • 7 Some authors working with field theory, including Rodney Benson and Érik Neveu (2005), reject the “ (...)

9But, unbeknownst to most of its participants, this debate occurred around the moment when sociology of journalism was undergoing significant transformations. In the English-speaking world6, an increasing number of scholars came to challenge this homogeneization theory (Ryfe, 2006). This strand of ongoing research studies journalists’ work at the intersection of dynamics of professionalization, transformations of the economic environment and transformations of the political field. French sociologists participated in this movement via the application of Pierre Bourdieu’s field theory to the media and their analyses influenced heavily American neo-institutionalists (Benson & Neveu, 2005)7. Neo-institutionalism underlines the variety of constraints that affect each journalist’s work: Professional socialisation, pressure to find their public and access to information and sources (Esser & Strömbäck, 2014; Hamilton, 2004; Siméant, 1992; Sparrow, 2006).

  • 8 On how this logic affects the mediatisation of health risks in particular, see (Henry, 2007; Nollet (...)

10By analysing together journalists’ work and the evolution of their sources –in the political field for instance– this perspective helps understand how journalists come to agree on which subjects should be covered as controversies and which should not, and on where to set the boundaries of legitimate debate (Benson, 2013; Hallin, 1986, 2005). Beyond their interest for controversies, journalists in agenda-setting news-media tend to draw similar lines between the acceptable subjects for debate and/or the acceptable dissenting positions within a given debate (see in particular, Rohlinger, 2014; Comby, 2015)8. Pierre Bourdieu’s field theory is at the center of current debates within neo-institutionalist sociology of journalism, partly because it provides the most comprehensive account of this gatekeeping role and boundary work.

Pierre Bourdieu’s field theory and the co-production of debates in the media

11Firstly, it is important to note that journalists have to build and maintain their credibility towards three types of actors: Their peers, their audience and their sources (Siméant, 1992). This credibility is crucial to understand their work in a context of controversy. Indeed, journalists are often accused of giving voice to actors who lack scientific legitimacy in an attempt to manufacture the image of a scientific controversy. These accusations often come from dominant actors in these debates. By giving voice to underdogs and marginal actors, journalists put on the line their relationship with the more powerful and central actors. When setting the stage for a controversy, journalists walk a fine line.

12Pierre Bourdieu’s field theory (1979) helps shed light on this phenomenon. All “fields” comprise a wide variety of actors with varying amounts of capital. All of these actors fight to gain, regain or maintain a dominant position in the field which comes with more capital but also with a certain degree of control over the definition of the rules of engagement within the field. Dominant actors are able to maintain their standing by defining rules of engagement that favour the specific types of resources and competences in their possession. In doing so, dominant actors have the power to exclude actors who don’t share the same vision as theirs from the field, or at least to confine them to very marginal positions within it. But this also means that there is a permanent struggle between the various actors who compose the dominant pole of the field. Their visions and positions are similar, but still differ in some ways –even if not radically. If we take the example of the field of medical research, the dominant actors would be academic researchers from prestigious and/or well-funded universities and researchers working in large and profitable pharmaceutical companies. Opposite them, around the dominated pole of the field, we could find isolated victims of a given drug, local non-profits struggling to make their work-related condition recognized by medical authorities, proponents of alternative medicines, etc. One way dominant actors maintain their positions is by restraining access to crucial arenas where symbolic, social and economic resources are distributed –such as the most prestigious academic journals, funding agencies, etc. This leads to three consequences: The exclusion of the most dominated actors from the main arenas of (scientific) debate, the restriction of the debate to a limited subset of issues and the preservation of a separate dominant pole of the field.

Journalists’ selection of sources and issues: Sphere of controversy, sphere of consensus and sphere of deviance

13This boundary work within a given field is crucial for journalists. Access to the most influential actors is an important resource for them. This structuration of the field acts as a constraint for journalists. If journalists give voice to actors who are too far away from the most dominant actors –too “heterodox”–, they will lose their credibility towards the former. Not only will dominant actors refuse to engage in the discussion of such heterodox positions, they are also likely to refuse future requests for interviews and go to other journalists to engage in informal conversations, give tips or reveal scoops. This means that journalists who choose to cover dominant actors’ actions are at least indirectly bound by their definition of credibility and must consider it when selecting sources and issues (see also: Champagne, 1995; Benson & Neveu, 2005; Kaplan, 2002, 2006). In his influential book, The Uncensored War: The Media and Vietnam, Daniel C. Hallin (1986) showed how this constraint of credibility towards official sources was translated in the media coverage of the Vietnam war. Only a limited number of issues were framed in a critical or controversial way and next to this sphere of legitimate controversy there was a sphere of consensus and a sphere of deviance:

Bounding the Sphere of Legitimate Controversy on one side is what can be called the Sphere of Consensus. This is the region of “motherhood and apple pie”; it encompasses those social objects not regarded by the journalists and most of the society as controversial. Within this region journalists do not feel compelled either to present opposing views or to remain disinterested observers. On the contrary, the journalist’s role is to serve as an advocate or celebrant of consensus values. And beyond the Sphere of Legitimate Controversy lies the Sphere of Deviance, the realm of those political actors and views which journalists and the political mainstream of the society reject as unworthy of being heard. It is, for example, written into the FCC’s guidelines for application of the Fairness Doctrine that “it is not the Commission’s intention to make time available to Communists or to the Communist viewpoints.” Here neutrality once again falls away, and journalism becomes, to borrow a phrase from Talcott Parsons, a “boundary-maintaining mechanism”: It plays the role of exposing, condemning, or excluding from the public agenda those who violate or challenge the political consensus. It marks out and defends the limits of acceptable political conflict (Hallin, 1986, p. 116-117).

14This does not mean that all journalists will always conform to these boundaries and norms. But repeated trespassing is only tenable if the media is aiming for a niche in the market.

15This framework provides a welcome alternative to the “two cultures” approach which does not account for journalists’ gatekeeping practices. In this neo-institutionalist perspective –and its bourdieusian strand more specifically– some transformations are specific to the media field and favor the practice of giving voice to more marginal actors. However, for more heterodox views to be heard, they have to be combined with transformations within the field covered (Marchetti, 2010).

16As we will now see, this framework helps make sense of part of journalists’ attitudes towards vaccine critics and the subject of vaccine safety during the pandemic flu period. I will show that changes in the medical field –the arrival in the domain of vaccine criticism of new actors with more scientific and political capital– account for the emergence of a debate over the pandemic flu vaccine’s safety in the media. In addition to underlining the coproduction of boundaries to public debates between journalists and their sources, this case study contributes to this literature by describing the dilemmas faced by journalists confronted to contradictory professional norms and by documenting the different ways in which they are able to solve these dilemmas and perform this boundary work.

Context and Methods

Vaccine hesitancy in contemporary France and the controversy over the safety of the 2009 pandemic flu vaccine

17In the past ten years, vaccination has become a subject of increasing concern for the French public health authorities. After two decades without vaccines hitting the news, a first vaccine scare appeared at the end of the 1990s when concerns were raised over a link between hepatitis B vaccination and multiple sclerosis. But by 2004 this issue had ceased to make the news. The real turning point was the failure of the 2009 pandemic flu vaccination campaign. Since 2009, several aspects of France’s vaccination policy have been debated in the news: The use of aluminum-based adjuvants, the recommendation of the human papillomavirus, the availability of vaccines containing only the three mandatory strains (Diphteria, Tetanus, Polio) and the safety of vaccines combining many different virus strains (Ward, 2018). Unsurprisingly, they have been accompanied by a rise of the proportion of the population expressing doubts towards vaccines, to the point that France is among the countries where “vaccine hesitancy” is the most pervasive (Rey et al., 2018)).

18In April 2009, the circulation of a H1N1 strain of the flu elicited great concern in most high-income countries which had been preparing for a flu pandemic for years. This was especially the case in France where the government set up a special task force between May 1st 2009 and January 21st 2010. By the end of June 2009, it was decided that a large-scale vaccination campaign would take place to vaccinate 70 % of the population. This campaign was to go down in history as a complete fiasco with only 8 % of the population getting vaccinated. Indeed, the government announced in early July that it had ordered 94 million doses to vaccinate 52 million people with two doses of the vaccine. However, by the time they announced the precise format of the campaign at the end of August, it appeared that one dose would be enough to generate immunity. More importantly, by then, data from the southern hemisphere suggested that the flu would not be as lethal as expected. Criticism of the “over-reaction” of public authorities had occasionally surfaced before the summer. They started multiplying and becoming a news segment as such by mid-July. But from the month of September until the middle of October, the whole coverage of the campaign revolved around criticism and debate. The main subjects of contention were the reality of the threat posed by this virus, the cost of the campaign, alleged conflicts of interest among the experts counselling the Minister for Health, and the safety of the vaccine. The vaccination campaign started on the 20th of October for at-risk groups –medical professionals, pregnant women, etc.– and on the 10th of November for the rest of the population. Until the end of November, the coverage focused on whether people would get vaccinated or not. But by the beginning of December and until the end of the pandemic flu newscycle (February 2010), it consisted mainly of comments on why this vaccination campaign had been a failure.

19Among the various points of contention surrounding this event, the safety of the vaccine was the most significant one when it comes to the relationship between journalists and “scientists” or “experts”. This aspect of the debate was special in several ways. Firstly, many prominent figures of the medical world and of opposition parties led the charge against the government’s strategy, denouncing its failure to secure the participation of general practitioners to this campaign, the prioritization of funding toward fighting this flu rather than toward improving hospital care, and the undemocratic nature of its decision-making process. Public criticism even came from members within the governing party. But most of the more visible critics of the campaign did not evoke the issue of the vaccine’s safety or explicitly rejected such concerns. Secondly, the government and public health authorities did not significantly alter their discourse on the issue of the vaccine’s safety during the period, contrary to the more political issues (for details, see Ward, 2016). There was no back and forth between critics and public health officials and experts on the subject of the vaccine’s safety. The latter were adamant that it was not an issue. They mainly explained how the process of production, certification and pharmaco-surveillance of vaccines made them reliable. They also publicly denounced the influence of “the antivaccine movement” and its conspiracy theories, irrationality and anti-science attitude. Criticism of this vaccine’s safety was therefore the most heterodox form of scientific criticism produced during this period and was somewhat separated from mainstream political discussions surrounding this campaign. I focus on this aspect of the controversy because it exacerbated the issues of professional credibility discussed in the previous section, making them appear in a clearer light. I have presented elsewhere the most prominent critics of this vaccine and their arguments (see Ward, 2016). Their main causes for concern regarding this vaccine were: 1)  the vaccine was produced too quickly; 2) it contained adjuvants which made it more likely to produce side-effects; and 3) the flu being benign, these elements make the vaccine more dangerous than useful.

Sample and methods

20This paper draws on two types of data: Media contents published during the period spanning from April 27th, 2009 to February 1st, 2010, and interviews conducted with journalists who covered the topic.

21Analysis of the media coverage consisted mainly in the systematic analysis of all contents pertaining even marginally to the safety of the pandemic vaccine published in 20 French news media: Le Monde, Le Figaro, Libération, La Croix, Le Parisien/Aujourd’hui en France, L’Express, Le Point, Marianne, Valeurs Actuelles, L’Humanité, France Soir, Le Nouvel Observateur, Le Journal du Dimanche, Le Canard Enchainé, Rue 89, Arrêts sur Images, Médiapart, Slate, TF1’s daily news at 1pm and 8pm.

  • 9 I also analysed a sample of newspapers specialised in health and medicine and conducted interviews (...)

22I aimed to include in this selection a variety of positioning on the media market and media known to have a strong influence on the news agenda (Marchetti, 2010)9.

23In addition to this analysis centred on agenda-setting media, a second approach focused on vaccine critics’ access to the news-media during this period. To map out this access in a systematic way, I first identified the 19 main actors who criticized the safety of this vaccine –political parties, non-profits, individual activists, academics…, for more details see (Ward, 2016). In order to identify all the media who gave voice to these actors, I conducted keywords searches in two databases:

24– Europress gives access to the published material of most of the French printed press. Keywords searches apply to the content of all articles included in the database.

25– Inathèque gives access to everything broadcasted on French TV channels and radio. Each media format is divided into segments. A summary and keywords are provided for each segment. It provides a special coding for news media contents, dividing each news show into small segments and providing keywords and a summary for each of them. These summaries include all the people interviewed during the program and most people mentioned. Keywords searches do not apply to the video content but to this rather rich information provided by Inathèque.

26I identified all the instances when vaccine critics appeared or were mentioned in the media covered by these databases (number of appearances, which media, when…) and read, listened or viewed all these pieces. Analysis consisted in compiling the arguments presented by vaccine critics, the time or amount of space they were given and the way they were presented by the journalist. Other keywords queries and secondary analyses will be presented in the results section.

27The second set of data consists of 32 semi-structured interviews conducted between October 2012 and February 2014 with journalists who produced these pieces. 15 of them were working in a daily newspaper, 11 in a weekly newspaper, 2 in an internet pure player, 3 for a television news bulletins and one in a news agency. Interviews focused on how they came to see the issue of vaccine safety as newsworthy with an emphasis on the chronology of the period. The aim was to identify the factors that led them to take an interest in the vaccine’s safety, their conception of what good journalism was and how they discriminated between competing sources. Following Dominique Marchetti’s work, one focus of the analysis was on the variety of professional ethoses among these journalists. As evoked in the introduction this dimension is presented in detail elsewhere (Ward, 2015) and the format of this paper does not allow developing this aspect. But since these differences have some bearing on the results presented here, I will summarize these findings. Journalists were either:

28a) Vulgarisers: their goal was to transmit orthodox information and/or to explain the complexity of vaccine science. This group is mainly constituted of doctors who became journalists towards the end of their medical training. But it also contains journalists who were not doctors and went through the traditional route of a journalism school. Most of the members of this group also occupied rather senior positions in the newsroom and had been covering health for more than five years at the time of the pandemic.

29b) Critical experts: their goal was to hold the powerful to account and to stimulate debates. Most were senior journalists –around 50 years old and more– who had already been covering health for more than 10 years and who had a position in the newsroom that allowed them to make time for investigative journalism. One of them was a doctor and another obtained a degree in physics before turning to journalism. The minority who had only recently come to health journalism were in media or rubrics who encouraged this critical stance (“Environment” rubrics for instance).

30c) or Routine journalists: some saw themselves as both alternately depending on the circumstances. Half of them had only fairly recently specialized in health issues (less than five years, either in a dedicated rubric or within a larger “society” rubric) while the other half were not specialized in the coverage of health. Routine journalists had less control over their production as they occupied more junior positions in the newsroom. Most of them did not cover the whole pandemic flu news cycle, but rather were assigned to daily or weekly forays when help was deemed necessary.

31Interviews were conducted in French and all media contents were also in French. All verbatims in the results section are translations by the author.

How journalists circumscribed debates on the safety of the pandemic flu vaccine

Almost all journalists denied antivaxxers credibility

32The most crucial result to transpire from the interviews is that almost all journalists in our sample shared public health experts’ vision of “the antivaccines” as anti-Science or at least as lacking scientific credibility. Indeed, the vast majority of our sample of journalists evoked “the antivaccines”, “the antivaccine movement” or “antivaccine activists” spontaneously and presented a very negative vision of them –all but four. For journalists, they constitute “a lobby”, their perspective is “ideological” and their discourse is a “caricature”, “implausible” or has “questionable scientific bases”. They associated them with “rumors” and “conspiracy theories” and often suggested that they were close to “cults”, led by “gurus”. Some also used psychologizing terms such as “crazy” and “paranoid”.

33It is important to note that journalists who saw themselves as vulgarizers -–the less critical of public health authorities and experts– were not the only ones to use these derogatory descriptions. They were equally formulated by routine journalists and, more importantly, by those who adopted a critical expert stance. The latter tended to also spontaneously and explicitly defend the principle of vaccination in the same breath as their criticism of this specific vaccination campaign. This was put in a clear and concise way by Journalist n5 (female, pure player):

I believe that vaccines have brought a lot to mankind. But, in this case, there was an obvious media and political hysteria.

34But the most striking proof that this lack of scientific credibility of “the antivaccines” mattered even for the most critical journalists is that one of them almost walked out of our interview, several times, after I broached the issue of vaccine safety. He was both frustrated that the interview did not focus more on his work on conflicts of interest but he also visibly felt insulted that I might associate him with “the antivaccines”.

35The reasons evoked for rejecting “the antivaccines” show that these journalists adopt in some way academics’ and public health experts’ definition of –scientific– credibility. Indeed, they criticize the “antivaccines” lack of scientific credentials or data when building “their” case:

Journalist n15 (female, TV news): They go and find that small study done on three people in Denmark, or I don’t know where, which no-one has read except them.
Journalist n11 (female, daily newspaper): But there’s nothing, there’s no data! People hadn’t been vaccinated yet, so…

  • 10 For instance, several journalists criticized vaccine critics for comparing this vaccination campaig (...)

36Most journalists assessed vaccine critics’ arguments and their scientific grounds by looking at whether they referred to specific studies, whether these studies applied to this vaccine10 and whether the scientific journal was renowned or not. But they also insisted that the only real source of knowledge on these vaccines would be through pharmacosurveillance, aligning themselves yet again with dominant actors’ criteria of discussion.

  • 11 See also online annex,

37This does not mean that all of these journalists rejected all vaccine critics and refused to mention them in their pieces. We saw in the context section that there was a wide coverage of the issue of vaccine safety and that some media adopted a critical standpoint on this issue11. If almost all journalists rejected “the antivaccines”, they seemed to disagree on what counts as “antivaccine” and whether all forms of vaccine criticism should be covered by this derogatory term.

  • 12 For reviews of the literature for the whole paragraph, see (Blume, 2017; Conis, 2014). For an analy (...)

38This is where it becomes necessary to look at how the medical field is structured when it comes to vaccination. As we have seen rapidly in the context section, public health authorities and experts publicly delegitimized “the antivaccine movement” in very harsh terms. This was not specific to the pandemic flu period. Since the first vaccination campaigns at the beginning of the 19th century, vaccination has become one of the hallmarks of public health and a prominent symbol of science in the domain of medicine. Denial of the effectiveness of this technology, and of the scientific knowledge at its foundation, was very early publicly labelled as a sign of extreme lack of credibility. This has increasingly been the case since the Second World War with the invention and successful introduction of a growing number of vaccines. The re-emergence of public vaccine-related controversies in Great-Britain, the United States of America and France since the end of the 1990s led to the strengthening of this public discourse equating vaccination with science and “the antivaccine movement” with anti-science, irrationality and obscurantism12. In these discourses in France and elsewhere, public health officials and experts equate contemporary forms of vaccine criticism with their 19th century counterparts which negated the principle of vaccination itself. However, social scientists working on contemporary mobilizations have shown that, while these radical forms of critique still exist, many prominent contemporary vaccine critics tend to only reject some vaccines, substances included in vaccines or aspects of vaccination policies –for a review, see (Ward, 2016). Indeed, the boundary work targeting vaccine critics performed by the dominant actors in the field of medicine bears heavily on vaccine critics themselves. This was particularly the case for the pandemic flu vaccination campaign in France. In my study of vaccine critics, I showed that it discouraged new actors with significant amounts of political capital from seizing the opportunity of the pandemic to gain more media visibility by adding vaccines to their repertoire of issues. This issue did attract some of these new actors –a renowned epidemiologist, member of the French Academy of Medicine, a member of the European parliament, several political parties who participate in all presidential elections, nonprofits who had managed in the past to successfully lobby the European parliament, etc. But, to preserve their credibility, they refused to form alliances with groups that criticized all forms of vaccination and restricted their arguments to this particular vaccine and to the use of adjuvants. They also publicly defended the principle of vaccination and sometimes explicitly participated in the public delegitimization of “the antivaccines”. There was therefore a double boundary-work at play on the issue of this vaccine’s safety: dominant actors rejected vaccine critics altogether outside of the domain of legitimate controversy; while some vaccine critics tried to position themselves on the right side of the boundary by reproducing the same boundary-work toward other vaccine critics (see also Ward et al., 2019).

39This helps understand this apparent paradox of journalists explicitly rejecting the “antivaccines” while at the same time talking of the possible dangers of this vaccine. The arrival of these new actors with political and/or scientific credibility presenting arguments that did not correspond to radical rejections of vaccination had two effects. Firstly, it made it possible for critical journalists to take up the issue of vaccines without jeopardizing their credibility. They could organize a debate on the issue of this vaccine’s safety without it crossing the « antivaccine » boundary. They could count on these sources to stay within the realm of acceptable debate. But it also had a second effect. It put the routine and vulgarization journalists in a difficult position.

With the emergence of new vaccine critics, routine and vulgarization journalists were faced with a dilemma

40Journalists who displayed a vulgarization or a routine ethos denied scientific credibility to doubts over the vaccine’s safety and emphasized their responsibility towards public health. Contrary to some more critical journalists, they did not see these new actors as much more credible, even if they did see them as credible a minima, and felt they had no choice but to mention them. If the actors who criticized this vaccine had been traditional “antivaccine” activists with their emphasis on alternative medicine and far-fetched conspiracy theories, they could have completely brushed aside their accusations and the subject altogether. But this is not so easy with these “new” actors with more established positions within the medical and political fields. Competition on the market makes it very likely that other media will give them space and that they will get media coverage somewhere. Also, if the subject of vaccine safety makes it in the news cycle and becomes part of everyday conversations, then the specific audience of the media who chose not to cover this particular subject will be dissatisfied not to have been given any information on the subject. Many journalists were therefore confronted to contradictory injunctions and pressures. They experienced this period as one full of dilemmas. This was particularly apparent in my interview with Journalist n19 (female, weekly newspaper), who was more towards the routine journalism pole of the spectrum. She was uneasy about framing this issue as a controversy. She would have preferred to provide clear guidelines for her audience:

I remember, we were very surprised that even doctors doubted the vaccine’s safety. And we had done all these campaigns… for us, I mean, if we have to put it that way, we were provaccine in the beginning. Because the first messages we got were from the Ministry for Health, their warnings and all that […] But with all these debates that started coming up, I remember that we couldn’t make up our minds, even us! […] We weren’t sure either. So for us, because our goal is to help people make an informed decision, it appeared logical to give information on the fact that there was, indeed, some suspicion regarding side effects… But at the same time, we had no certainty. It was information we gave to the reader, saying: “here, sort it out yourselves!” We would’ve liked to be able to give an answer. We like to be able to give answers after an investigation, to be able to say “this is better or that is better”.

41This dilemma was also felt very intensely by journalists with a vulgarization ethos. Journalist n15, who was working at the time for TV news, spent some time during our interview complaining about how much pressure was put on journalists like her by editors-in-chief to produce more pieces on the subject of the flu. Her main concern was that this would dilute public health messages and that her audience would stop listening to them. This pressure to produce news and keep up with the competition was particularly problematic for her when it came to the subject of vaccine safety:

Journalist n15 (female, TV news): From the moment we do the piece, even if it’s to say that Guillain-Barré syndrom is not something we should fear about this vaccination, we pronounce the word “Guillain-Barré”. We pronounce a word that says that there is something. So we instil doubt…
Interviewer: And that’s problematic?
Journalist n15: Well of course I’m uneasy with that! Of course! But it’s very difficult, and I understand that because I’m someone who works on the news. It’s very difficult not to make a piece on this. From the moment it’s in all the media, we cannot stay absent. So it’s the ambiguity of the issue…

42Guillain-Barré syndrome consists in long-term partial paralysis and was presented by vaccine-critics as a likely side-effect of this pandemic vaccine.

43The fact that journalists are confronted to contradictory injunctions and sometimes experience their work as full of dilemma has been particularly well analyzed by Cyril Lemieux (2000) and Eric Lagneau (2010). They show that often the very concrete aspects of journalistic work, such as choices of formats and frames, constitute crucial resources for journalists to find solutions to these dilemmas. In the case of the H1N1 vaccination campaign, French journalists expressed their judgment on the legitimacy of vaccine critics through these choices of frames and formats. The judgments exposed in the previous section can be seen in three types of boundary work journalists engaged in during this period.

Boundary-work by selection of sources

  • 13 It must be added that this count does not take into consideration the times when these actors were (...)

44The first type of boundary-work rested on journalists’ capacity to simply restrict access to their media to actors who did not criticize vaccination in general. This appears clearly when we compare the access to the agenda setting news-media given to the various actors who criticized this vaccine’s safety. I conducted keywords searches in two databases which, taken together, cover most of the French general information media: Europresse (print media) and Inathèque (all radios and televisions). I selected all articles, videos and sound clips published in national media, dealing with the issue of this vaccine’s safety and containing the name of one or more of these organizations or of their spokespersons. Table 1 presents the number of times each of our 19 critical actors were mentioned during this period on the subject of the pandemic vaccine’s safety in the national print, radio or TV media13. I distinguish between actors who criticized vaccination in general and those who restricted their critique to this particular vaccine. I chose to present participants to the series of lawsuits together since this was their only opportunity to appear in the national media.

Table 1: Number of times each main critical actor was mentioned in the French agenda-setting news-media on the subject of the safety of the 2009 pandemic vaccine

Table 1: Number of times each main critical actor was mentioned in the French agenda-setting news-media on the subject of the safety of the 2009 pandemic vaccine

45If we set aside the case of the lawsuits, which we will evoke later, we can see that the preferred sources on the issue of vaccine safety was a small subset of actors, all of which were very careful not to go too far in their critique. We find in this subset a world-renowned Infectious Disease Expert who focused his critique on the cost of this vaccination campaign but also raised concerns over vaccinating pregnant women and people who were not particularly at risk of dying from the flu. Another favorite source was a nurses’ union who resented the role given to nurses in this vaccination campaign. This campaign came at a time when they were trying to redefine the nurse’s role as one of representative of patients’ well-being and interests. They emphasized the risks and uncertainties of this vaccine precisely because they would be the ones who would be confronted to patients and their doubts. Politician X is a member of one of the main French ecological parties and she is renowned for her work on nuclear waste, conflicts of interest and industrial pollution in general. This campaign marks her arrival in the domain of vaccination and her emphasis was on the issue of conflicts of interest and the use of adjuvants in vaccines. Pharmacologist X came to prominence during the Hepatitis B vaccination controversy. He became interested in this vaccine’s safety and conducted counter-analyses of the hepatitis B vaccine’s pharmacosurveillance data. 2009 marks his comeback in the field of vaccine criticism. His arguments focused on the generalization of vaccination beyond specific at-risk groups and on the insufficient number of clinical trials performed on this new vaccine. Finally, Ecology and Health is a federation of ecological nonprofits and had mostly, at the time, worked on the dangers of BPA and toxic waste disposal. They seized the opportunity of this widely covered health-related issue to increase their political capital and push forward the issue of conflicts of interest and the dangers of the circulation of toxic products in small quantities –such as aluminum.

  • 14 These more radical actors compensated for this relative invisibility in the agenda-setting newsmedi (...)

46On the opposite end, we find actors who represent a more radical form of vaccine criticism. Freedom in Vaccination was founded at the beginning of the 1950s and has been since at the center of all vaccine-related mobilizations. Informed Freedom in Health was founded at the beginning of the 1990s and they have been very active since, organizing actions against a wide variety of vaccination campaigns and helping parents dodge mandatory vaccination. Journalist and Writer X became one of the main activists on the subject at the beginning of the 2000s. She has published more than ten books on the dangers of vaccines, on the fallacy at the core of this medical intervention and on alternatives to vaccination. During this period, these various actors produced a wide variety of arguments against this vaccine. Some of which only targeted this particular vaccine, but some implying a rejection of all of them. As we can see, these actors have been shunned by journalists. This is even more apparent if we take a closer look at the rare times they were mentioned in these media. One article in Le Monde only mentions Freedom in Vaccination and Informed Freedom in Health without presenting their arguments. In another article published in Rue89, only two lines are devoted to Freedom in Vaccination’s position on the subject. Journalist and Writer X’s two appearances were much lengthier but it is important to note neither of them were in agenda-setting media –France Inter’s debate program La tête au carré and France 2’s morning show C’est au programme. Among the combined 7 mentions of these three actors, only two gave enough space for these actors to put forward their arguments in news media towards the dominant pole of the field. One consisted in an interview of Freedom in Vaccination’s president by L’Express –only published on their website– and the other was a joint interview of an activist from Informed Freedom in Health and of an activist from Direct Democracy in France 3’s midday news bulletin. But even in those instances, journalists did not reproduce their arguments against vaccination in general. It is unclear whether this was a deliberate filtering by the journalists or a deliberate choice of arguments to present to the wider public by these actors, but it remains highly significant. Indeed, it means that Journalist and Writer X was the only one who managed to present typical “antivaccine” arguments in the main national news media during that period, and this only happened in very marginal media14.

47The only actors who rejected vaccination in general and managed to get a wide media coverage were the ones who participated, at the end of the month of October, in the filing of a series of lawsuits against the government for “poisoning” the population. This was part of a larger mobilization by these actors and their network who also produced texts and videos which circulated on the internet. The text of the lawsuit in itself did not contain arguments against vaccination in general and neither did all these media pieces. These actors developed their more general arguments against vaccination elsewhere. Almost all agenda-setting news-media evoked the filing of these lawsuits and, in doing so evoked the names of the people and/or organizations who filed them. The journalists with whom I evoked this event (3) dismissed these lawsuits entirely or started laughing and telling me how « goofy » they were, as Journalist n17 (female, newswire) did:

The lawsuits? We covered them but it was pfffff… It wasn’t really serious, but we had no choice. If we don’t get it out, someone else will.

  • 15 Only once were any of their authors subsequently asked to comment on an event relating to the pande (...)

48But interestingly, this coverage was almost entirely restricted to the contents of the press brief published by France’s main press wire, the AFP. The authors of these lawsuits did not become fixtures of the following news cycle and their other actions and discourses were not brought to the spotlights through this punctual action15. The only national media to have given a large space to any of the authors of these lawsuits was TF1’s very marginal morning show, 10h Le Mag.

  • 16 It is important to note that a third of Pharmacologist X’s mentions come from France 24, a 24 hours (...)

49The contrast is stark with the actors who only proposed a conditional critique of this vaccine. In addition to being mentioned much more often, they also all benefited from more media space when they were evoked and were put forward by more prominent media. Nurses’ Union X, Politician X, Pharmacologist X and Infectious Disease Expert X were evoked by practically all the agenda-setting media. They also benefited more often from longer interviews in these more central media. For instance, Politician X was given a lengthy interview by Le Parisien while Pharmacologist X16 developed his arguments in L’Humanité and in RMC’s Bourdin and co –among many others. After their press release in the first days of September, Nurses’ union X emerged at the forefront of the news cycle. Lengthy excerpts from their press release were copied and pasted in numerous articles and its president gave interviews to practically all of the main media. This group of actors became references on the subject of vaccine safety, with most articles on the subject mentioning them and presenting at least some of their arguments.

Boundary-work in the presentation of sources

50If journalists had to talk about these critics and some of their arguments, they retained some freedom in how they presented these actors. Some of them used this as a means to put forward their judgement on their lack of credibility.

51In the case of actors who rejected all vaccines, this was often done in a very crude manner, journalists showing clearly their disdain for these actors. Going back to the lawsuits, this was the case in one of the very rare times a journalist went further than the news brief and developed this story. Indeed, to develop this story, the journalist from Le Parisien chose to discuss the proximity between those who filed these lawsuits and “cultish” movements:

A peculiar lawyer files a lawsuit against the vaccine […]
Even more curious, the organism in charge of fighting cultic influences, the Miviludes
(Interministerial Mission for Monitoring and Combatting Cultic Deviances) considers this lawyer to be part of the pro-cult lobby and to be an advocate for therapeutic freedom. A spokesperson for the Miviludes points out: “Our services know Lawyer X very well. He became well known for his defence of the nonprofit Horus, in a case on illegal practice of medicine. We can observe the mobilisation of other prominent members of the pro-cult movement around the refusal of the H1N1 pandemic vaccine.” Lawyer X responds: “in this country, as soon as you say something about vaccinations, you are accused of belonging to a cult”. Le Parisien, October 24th 2009.

52Also, in one of their briefs on the subject, journalists from the AFP use the polemical term “antivaccines” to describe LIFE and the “group” who filed one of these lawsuits. It is important to note that this term was never directly used to describe any actors from the first group. The leader of Life’s Political Party was also the subject of public mockery on two separate occasions on France Info’s Rubrique du Web, a regular format devoted to trends on the internet. Its leader’s homemade video where he criticizes the campaign and vaccination in general rapidly reached a million views during the month of October. This prompted the journalist from this segment to select it as a typical case of crazy misinformation on the internet. France Info was not the only media to target one or more actors who participated in these lawsuits to denounce the tendency of rumors and conspiracy theories to circulate widely on the internet. Justice For All’s main feat was to be the first to file a lawsuit against the French government during the month of August 2009. Both mentions of Justice For All were meant to present them as the embodiment of the lunacy that inhabits some parts of the internet, as in a paper published by Rue89 in August:

(Note from author: about the german author of the initial lawsuit) The “investigative” journalist certifies that she has proofs of acts of bioterrorism involving prominent figures and institutions. Pell mell: the WHO, Barack Obama, David de Rothschild, David Rockefeller, Georges Soros, Werner Fayman (chancelor of Austria), etc.
In France at the end of July, the nonprofit Justice for All, after having “discovered this lawsuit on the Internet”, asked the prosecutor of Nice to open a “criminal enquiry to prevent a grievous health crisis”.
For the president of this nonprofit, there is no doubt, there is a vast conspiracy undertaken by elites from the whole world to get rid of part of the population. On the telephone, she assures:
“They are already after me, I’m being tapped”. Rue89, August 12, 2009.

  • 17 For details, see also online annex,

53The use of quotation marks, the choise of words introducing the source’s arguments and of verbatims are necessary to paint a portrait. But they can be –and are– used by journalists to distance themselves from these actors, even if they feel compelled to talk about them. In this particular case, this distancing is also presupposed in the article format chosen by the journalist. Indeed, this section was part of a piece dedicated to the debunking of rumors, an article format presented as a trademark of Rue89. This pure player was certainly not the only one to link vaccine criticism with rumors and conspiracy theories on the internet. Most media I analyzed explicitly linked the latter and concerns over vaccine safety17. What’s more, even actors who restricted their criticism to this vaccine were regularly evoked in these papers. They therefore may not have been publicly stigmatized, as were the more radical critics, and they may have benefited from greater media visibility, but they also regularly suffered from being presented next to exotic rumors and conspiracy theories on the internet.

54Using introductory remarks and journalistic format to directly signal lack of credibility was not restricted to the most radical actors. Journalist n11, who was working at the time at a daily newspaper, explains why she chose the format of the interview to cover Politician X’s press release:

Journalist n11 (female, daily newspaper): I can’t remember how I presented it. It would be interesting to see that. (Note from author: Interviewer presents the text, she reads it) Voila! You can see who she is. She’s an environmental activist, we’re not lying about what the product is. You can see she’s an environmental activist, that she’s the director of [name of ecological non profit]. [name of ecological non profit], they’re whistle blowers. You can see who she is, if you see what I mean.
Interviewer: What do you mean ? Why is it important?
Journalist n
11: Well it’s important, because we’re not saying to people: Politician X is hmmm… it’s not someone from the conservative party who would start doubting, which would be much more interesting. Politician X’s discourse, it’s expected! You can really see that it’s someone whose trajectory is really like, she’s an ecologist, invested in non profits, in networks of whistleblowers on nuclear power, on public health issues. So you can see that she’s not in the, hmmm, politically correct movement. She’s a bit to the side. Yes, that’s it! She’s not in the official discourse; she’s a bit to the margin for an elected politician. […]
Yes, but you can see that I’m taking all these precautions. I chose the format of the interview, a questions and answers. I don’t put anything of myself in it. It can appear this way… In journalism, the questions and answers format has an advantage: you open the quotation marks, you give voice to. You’re probably going to say that nothing is trivial, that it has consequences to give voice to this politician. It’s true. But it doesn’t commit me that much […] I don’t put much of myself in it. I didn’t do the investigation. […] She’s the one who says it, not us.

55Choosing to present a piece using the format of the interview allows the journalist to show that he or she does not endorse the source’s point of view. It makes it possible to present it precisely this way: as a point of view, as opposed to the truth, the final word.

Boundary-work by choice of formats and frames

  • 18 For instance, several journalists insisted on the fact that the pieces in which they presented the (...)

56The journalists I interviewed evoked other ways they managed to cover the issue of this vaccine’s safety while expressing their own assessment of the credibility of these claims. To reconcile these contradictory injunctions, they also relied on the facts 1) that they were going to make several different pieces on the subject, 2) that there were different journalists with different roles in the newsroom and 3) that the coverage would span across different points of the pandemic flu news cycle18.

  • 19 The only exceptions were in very marginal media –a spokesperson for Ecology and Health in Le Magazi (...)

57But more importantly, choices of frames and formats appeared to be crucial resources for journalists. In the previous sections, I exposed the various ways these journalists prevented radical critique of vaccination from entering the debate and gaining visibility. Framing and format choices constitute a more subtle form of boundary-work, this time targeting even the most visible vaccine critics. Indeed, choices in format and frames reflect the credibility attributed by journalists to their sources. Do they present critiques and defenses of this vaccine together, as a debate, or do they only present one side? Who is presented as having the final word? Service journalism is particularly telling when it comes to attribution of credibility. In service pieces, journalists explicitly present some information as the up-to-date answer to a given question. When the vaccination campaign actually began and journalists had to give answers to their audience, who did they turn to? This format shows the hierarchy that journalists establish between their various and contradictory sources: Those that can be presented on their own and those who are good when “other points of view” are needed. Who do they turn to when it really matters and when they are faced with their responsibilities? In the case of the 2009 pandemic vaccination campaign, the answer is clear: An overwhelming majority of journalists turned to “pro-vaccine” sources when the campaign started. Indeed, from October on, journalists moved from frames that imply debate and pieces that give voice to critics to pieces that focus on why people should get vaccinated giving voice to dominant sources. Vaccine critics were almost never put in a position to give their answers and recommendations regarding this vaccination campaign or presented in papers framed in such a way19.

58Another framing choice reflects the relative lack of credibility these journalists attributed to vaccine critics. Between the middle of October and the beginning of the vaccination campaign in the first weeks of November, journalists did not only switch to service journalism. These service pieces were also regularly accompanied by pieces dedicated to the public’s perception of vaccines. Overall, the subject of vaccine safety was rapidly framed as an issue of public opinion rather than as a scientific debate. This meant that arguments were put in the mouths of passer-bys, chatroom participants, survey respondents, etc., rather than associated with the identifiable actors we have cited in this paper. This choice of frame does not pop up from nowhere. Numerous opinion polls were published during this campaign, showing that a vast majority of the French population did not intend to vaccinate.

59To explain how this choice of frame constitutes an important tool used by journalists to perform their boundary work, let me describe one particularly significant piece I came across in this research. Les Maternelles is a morning show aired between 9 and 10 am on France 5, a public television channel. It is very popular among young mothers. A presenter invites guests to talk about a variety of subjects related to motherhood and other journalists act as back-up on smaller segments devoted to books, practical tips, etc. In early September, they devoted a show to the upcoming pandemic flu vaccination campaign. The main block of 40 minutes of on-set discussion with guests started after a couple of short video snippets devoted to other subjects. This main segment is called “The big Discussion”. The debate was set around a triangular table, with the host in the middle and two sets of two guests on her sides facing each other. The way each participant was presented immediately announced what kind of debate this will be. These presentations were made orally at the beginning of the segment, but were also written on-screen each time they intervened in the debate. On one side we have “Dr X” who is “a pediatrician, with a specialty directly linked to vaccination” and “Dr Y” who is “also a pediatrician but with a different specialty”. Both men appear to be more than fifty years old. X and Y contain given names and surnames. Opposite them sit two rather young women, in their mid-20s to mid-30s. They are presented as “two mothers” and the presenter only uses their given names. Their introduction also consists in talking about their children with accompanying pictures on screen. The doctors are given the floor first and they talk about how vaccination in general is necessary and why compulsory vaccination is maybe not so justified because it fails to guarantee high vaccination rates. Then, comes the turn for these two “mothers” to give their opinion and they raise the issue of side-effects of vaccines in general and give examples (especially hepatitis B). Both mothers are clearly not used to talking in public and appear hesitant, contrary to both doctors. The host then turns to the doctors with the following sentence: “Are [Mother 1’s given name]’s fears legitimate fears? Do vaccines present risks?” One doctor comments that no medicine is without risk, but proceeds to correct these mothers’ allegations:

Dr X: In the story you are telling, there are things that are not true, medically speaking. For instance, Rheumatic fever is not a counter-indication. But ok, never mind, this is her experience.

60During this, the camera turns to one mother who listens to the doctor intently and even says in a low voice “oh really” as if she just discovered this fact. She nods as if in approval all along. We can note how doctors are called upon to judge the legitimacy of these arguments. This will happen at several times during this “debate” but the reverse never happens. The host also regularly interrupts mothers in their relatively clumsy arguments to check with the doctors whether they are true. When one mother evokes the subject of the hepatitis B vaccine, the host turns to Dr Y:

Host (interrupts her): Dr Y, what do you recommend regarding this vaccine?
Dr Y: The main difficulty is that we are opposing science to fear. That is to say objectivity to subjectivity. So fears themselves, they have one main obstacle; it’s that they aren’t validated. They are not backed by scientific arguments. The different cohorts that have been followed, such as the last one, the KITSEP: we haven’t been able to show that there is a link between vaccination and multiple lateral sclerosis.

61Both mothers also regularly explicitly say that they are not completely sure about the scientific validity of their own arguments. Finally, the host gives the honor of closing the debate to one of the doctors:

Host: The key, Dr Y, is that parents get informed, like [Mother 1’s given name] and (Mother 1’s given name], to make an informed decision.
Dr Y: Whether you are for or against, the main danger is ideology. So the antivaccine ideology, we know what it is. We know its arguments, they rest on arguments that aren’t real arguments, because they haven’t been validated. And the danger is also that, armed with the scientific ideology, it becomes scientism to drape yourself in scientific legitimacy, saying “we must, let’s do it, don’t discuss it”. I think that today, I mean we are in 2009! We must be open to parents’ doubts. We are here for that. We are scientists ourselves. We are trained. We continuously train and we are perfectly competent to answer parents’ concerns and transform their subjective fears into objective data that will help them go towards vaccination which protects children.

62As Dr Y utters these final words, the camera slides to one mother who quietly nods in what appears to be acquiescence. What we witnessed was not so much a debate but rather a simulation of how the public can be educated. The purple table runner separating the table in two may have suggested a scene where two sides fight each other but the storyline told the tale of how one side spread its light to the other. Dr Y may call for an open dialogue between both parties, but this dialogue is paradoxical. The conclusion is already set: rational dialogue can only lead to vaccination.

63Of course, this segment is an extreme version of this framing of the subject. But it combines elements that can be found again and again, separately or combined, in so many pieces published during this period. Journalists transformed doubts, arguments and critiques into “fears” and “dread” and their choice of actors to embody vaccine criticism affects how these critiques are presented. This can be found in many different ways across our sample of media contents. In interviews with pro-vaccine public health experts, they are asked to answer these “fears”. Interviews are often accompanied by pieces dedicated to this so-called “vaccine scare on the internet” where conditional critiques are put next to the most exotic conspiracy theories and identifiable vaccine critics are put next to anonymous chatroom participants. Many social scientists working in STS have denounced this pervasive tendency in the political and academic fields to associate heterodox views to “the public” and to irrationality (Wynne, 1992; Callon et al., 2011). By interpreting the debate over the safety of the pandemic vaccine in that particular way, and choosing the corresponding formats and frames, journalists participated in delegitimizing these critiques. They are pushed to the side of “society” or “the public” as opposed to “science”. As Journalist n19 put it: “Once arguments had been presented, we only did things on the irrational: reactions and things like that, it became a “societal phenomenon”–“phénomène de société” in French which is a label applied to topics that relate to social mores, trends, ways of life, etc.


64In this paper, I aimed to show how neo-institutionalist sociology of journalism defined broadly, and bourdieusian field theory in particular, can help shed light on journalists’ coverages of scientific and technological issues in general, and of vaccination in particular. This approach paints a very different picture from the traditional description of journalists’ work in vaccine-related controversies as friendly towards the “antivaccine movement” and as interested in fostering controversies on vaccination (Clarke, 2008, 2010). On the contrary, it shifts the attention to the boundaries journalists draw regarding which actors and arguments are credible enough to be heard.

65Credibility issues could be particularly heightened for health journalists making boundary-work all the more crucial to their work. Indeed, they face the challenge of reporting on highly technical issues in academic domains they were not trained in and that can have immediate consequences on their audience’s daily life –such as pandemics. But sociologists have underlined the effect of journalists’ boundary-making practices for the public treatment of a wide variety of issues such as global warming (Comby, 2015), immigration (Benson, 2013) or even war (Hallin, 1986). All journalists are faced with contradictory injunctions (Siméant, 1992) but, much like journalists covering the 2009 pandemic, they have a variety of resources that help them solve these dilemmas. These resources are often grounded in their day to day practice as producers of contents (formats, frames, literary styles, etc.) (Lemieux, 2000). These ressources enable journalists to perform boundary work in a wide variety of often subtle ways.

66The approach we adopted in this paper helps integrate sociology of journalism and the media into the larger theoretical project of the study of cultural boundaries and contemporary geographies of concern (Lamont & Molnár, 2002; Zerubavel, 2015). This is particularly important if we wish to understand contemporary concerns surrounding vaccination in France. One cannot make sense of the succession of public debates since 2009 and of the specificities of contemporary French “vaccine hesitancy” without referring to this boundary-work. Indeed, a cursory glance at the controversies over the safety of aluminum-based adjuvants, of the HPV vaccine and even of the Hepatitis B vaccine, suggests that they are mainly fueled by vaccine-specific actors who explicitly reject “the antivaccines”. Symmetrically, studies of attitudes towards vaccination in the French general population conducted in the past ten years show that 1) a significant proportion of the population has started having doubts towards vaccines after the 2009 pandemic fiasco and 2) their doubts are focused on the subset of vaccines which have been the object of public criticism (Rey et al., 2018). Beyond popular discourses on the spread of “fake news” on the Internet and “postfactual” society, it is crucial to set lay representations of vaccines in the context of this collective boundary work. This entails moving beyond the current rift that exists between research on the “public understanding of science” and research on collective conflicts surrounding science and technology.

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1 This study was supported by the Institut Hospitalo-Universitaire (IHU) Méditerranée Infection, the National Research Agency under convention no 15-CE36-0008-01 and the program « Investissements d’avenir » (convention ANR-10-IAHU-03), the Région Provence Alpes Côte d’Azur, the European funding FEDER PRIMI. The author would also like to thank Emilien Schultz, Nicolas Benvegnu, the participants to Columbia University’s Science Knowledge and Technology seminar participants to the Association Française de Science Politique’s 2016 workshop on Controversies and the Political Game, to the members of the Association Française de Sociologie’s research network on Sociology of the Media and the reviewers for their comments on earlier versions of the paper.

2 Some authors combine these two different uses of the “two cultures” hypothesis, see for instance Dorothy Nelkin’s subtle work (1987).

3 Of course, STS researchers have produced more subtle analyses of the role of the media in a variety of controversies. However, this has rarely led to the formation of a theoretical framework applicable beyond these case studies.

4 The study of media coverages of vaccination has produced one of the most ideal-typical examples of the “two cultures” approach in the work of Christopher E. Clarke (2008, 2010).

5 See also online annex,

6 Especially in the USA.

7 Some authors working with field theory, including Rodney Benson and Érik Neveu (2005), reject the “neo-institutionalist” label, arguing that institutionalisation is only one of the variables included in P. Bourdieu’s model. However, we follow here David Michael Ryfe (2006) and others who have argued that neo-institutionalism does not necessary mean a sole focus on the institutionalisation of a profession and that this aspect should be studied in relation to other social processes, which is precisely what field theory allows.

8 On how this logic affects the mediatisation of health risks in particular, see (Henry, 2007; Nollet, 2014; Marchetti, 2010; Briggs & Hallin, 2016).

9 I also analysed a sample of newspapers specialised in health and medicine and conducted interviews with journalists working there (see Ward, 2015). I chose not to include the results of this particular analysis as the health and medicine media occupy a very specific position on the media market –mostly monthly magazines working under the tutelage of a scientific committee composed of prominent medical professors and targeting women and parents– and have very little influence on the news-cycle.

10 For instance, several journalists criticized vaccine critics for comparing this vaccination campaign with the one against hepatitis B and insisted that they were two very different vaccines.

11 See also online annex,

12 For reviews of the literature for the whole paragraph, see (Blume, 2017; Conis, 2014). For an analysis of contemporary public discourses on “the antivaccines” and their relationship with discourses on science, see (Ward et al., 2019).

13 It must be added that this count does not take into consideration the times when these actors were mentioned on the subject of this vaccination campaign but not on the sub-issue of vaccine safety. Adding these mentions would raise the count for Nurse’s Union X, Politician X, Infectious disease Expert X and Ecology and Health –to 11 mentions for the latter– but not for the other actors.

14 These more radical actors compensated for this relative invisibility in the agenda-setting newsmedia by investing heavily in other types of media such as their own website, marginal magazines –covering alternative health, radical ecology, conspiracy theories, esotericism, etc.– and, for some, online social media –one actor’s video posted on Youtube reached a million views.

15 Only once were any of their authors subsequently asked to comment on an event relating to the pandemic (in Le Parisien in January 2010).

16 It is important to note that a third of Pharmacologist X’s mentions come from France 24, a 24 hours news channel.

17 For details, see also online annex,

18 For instance, several journalists insisted on the fact that the pieces in which they presented the critics and their arguments were published well before the beginning of the vaccination campaign thus restricting the risk of harming the vaccination campaign.

19 The only exceptions were in very marginal media –a spokesperson for Ecology and Health in Le Magazine de la Santé, a morning television show on France 5, and Pharmacologist X in another morning television show on another marginal TV show: Direct 8 Bien Être. The lack of credibility attributed to critiques once the vaccination campaign started was also showed in journalists’ choices of frames to cover the first reports on the pharmacosurveillance of these vaccines. They were published in the middle of November and announced possible cases of vaccine-induced Guillain-Barré syndroms. Almost all journalists chose to either stick to the brief written by the government and to remain extremely factual, or, paradoxically, to take this opportunity to re-affirm the safety of these vaccines. With the sole exception of France Soir, this event did not spark a renewed interest in vaccine-critical sources and their arguments.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Table 1: Number of times each main critical actor was mentioned in the French agenda-setting news-media on the subject of the safety of the 2009 pandemic vaccine
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Jeremy K. Ward, « Journalists and Science », Sociologie [En ligne], N° 4, vol. 10 |  2019, mis en ligne le 19 septembre 2019, consulté le 22 juillet 2024. URL :

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Jeremy K. Ward
Chercheur postdoctoral, Sociologue, CNRS, laboratoire GEMASS (CNRS, Université Paris-Sorbonne), chercheur associé, laboratoire VITROME (Aix-Marseille Université, IRD, AP-HM, SSA, IHU Méditerrannée Infection, ORS-PACA) - GEMASS, 59-61 rue Pouchet 75017 Paris, France

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