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2022 3M Truth in Science Award, Small/Medium Newsroom winner

How American conservatives turned against the vaccine

About the Project

The partisan pandemic, explained in 15 charts.

President Donald Trump presided over the fastest vaccine development process in history, leading to abundant, free vaccines in the US by the spring of 2021. Although the mRNA Covid-19 vaccines haven’t been able to stop transmission of the virus, they have been highly effective against hospitalization and death, saving hundreds of thousands of lives and rendering the majority of new Covid-19 deaths preventable.

Trump has received three doses of the vaccine. But many of his most dedicated supporters have refused, and many have died as a result. Why? Obvious culprits include misinformation on social media and Fox News and the election of Joe Biden, which placed a Democrat at the top of the US government throughout the vaccine distribution period. But if you look closely at the data, you’ll see that vaccine-hesitant conservatives largely made up their mind well before the vaccines were available and before Donald Trump lost the 2020 election.

To understand why, producer Joss Fong took a deep dive into the data, interviewed researchers, and spoke to people who lost loved ones to preventable severe Covid-19 infections. What she found is a stark cautionary tale for the country and for Republican political elites. Partisan polarization takes on a life of its own; once set into motion it’s nearly impossible to stop, even when the fallout is immense and irreparable.

The 15-minute video, “How American conservatives turned against the vaccine,” is the result of that reporting. It walks viewers through 15 data visualizations and several individual accounts to show that unvaccinated conservatives were caught in the center of several massive forces that collided in 2020: 1) An unprecedented viral pandemic arriving in an election year, 2) A trend of worsening partisan polarization in the US, corresponding with the tenure of an especially divisive President, and 3) Fractured media consumption and trust in institutions that dates back to the rise of Fox News but which has been intensified in some cases by algorithmic newsfeeds, especially on Facebook.