Today we saw a perfect example of how the breaking news of the same story can be conveyed in very different ways with the different use of just one fact.

At about 6.50 this morning I was looking at an iPad as a BBC breaking news alert announced the Oxford and AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine was reporting 70 per cent effectiveness. On the face of it a disappointment compared to the previously revealed 95 per cent effectiveness of the Pfizer/BioNtech version and the Moderna one.

Precisely as I was digesting the headline, I heard Stig Abel on Times Radio declare that the Oxford vaccine had been revealed as 90 per cent effective. In moments more breaking news alerts were flowing in on the iPad, going with the 90 per cent.

Something was out of kilter.

breaking news logo

This is something we often have to warn clients about. Just because you see a story one way, doesn’t mean others will accept your premise. So often it’s about how robustly and clearly you present the information that governs the ultimate outcome.

In this case it turns out that both were sort of correct. Two different dosing regimes had been used which, when the results were averaged, came to roughly 70 per cent. In fact one of those trials (the smaller one as it happened) achieved at least 90 per cent effectiveness, suggesting a more positive outcome was possible with this vaccine.

Someone in the BBC newsroom had made an editorial call and gone with the 70 per cent, which must have caused some spitting of tea and cursing in government, university and AstraZeneca press offices (not to mention Number 10).

Breaking news or breaking hearts?

Some will see that as an honest decision to run the story straight, but you can’t help the niggling feeling that it was trying a bit too hard to be worthy in the reporting.

By later in the day we had more clarification and the BBC News story had been re-written (after some pressure from politicians and press officers?) with a more positive headline, intro and focus on good outcomes:

  • it’s thought this vaccine prevents asymptomatic people spreading the virus
  • it’s cheaper than the alternatives so far
  • it’s easier to store, needing less complicated logistics and cold supply chains

These details all matter. Perhaps slightly sadly the country’s biggest news outlet’s initial treatment of them meant what was really good news emerged with a tinge of disappointment, when it probably should have been a cause of national celebration (it’s the one we’ve pre-ordered the most doses of, for a start).

Much of this emerged more robustly later in the day, but it’s a great example of how the rush to break news can skew the story in a big way, whichever way you view it. Very often the first take is what sets the tone and that makes it critical to get right when you are the one who’s news is being broken.

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