Newton Media, together with the Faculty of Social Sciences, Charles University in Prague, and the Medical Faculty of Masaryk University in Brno, was shortlisted in the prestigious media intelligence competition AMEC Award 2021. Newton scored with the Infomore.cz project, which sheds light on misleading information about the COVID-19 pandemic. Within the project our team analyses how the Czech media cover vaccination – a topic which has polarized Czech society over a long period. This time we looked into the case of the Czech Olympic team’s physician who refused to get vaccinated. Later, his actions were identified as the cause of covid outbreak among Czech athletes which made a dent in their Olympic medal hopes.
Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, vaccination has attracted much attention from both traditional and social media. The polarization of the society between the supporters of the vaccination and its opponents was well illustrated by the case of the unvaccinated physician of the Czech Olympic team, who drew almost more media attention than the athletes themselves. The reaction to the infection of the Czech Olympic team showed not only differences of opinions on vaccination but also the future direction of debates about its effectiveness.
Who infected the athletes?
Orthopedist Vlastimil Voráček was not a known figure until he became the first member of the Czech team with a positive test for COVID-19 after arriving to the venue of the Olympic Games in Tokyo. Later, two beach volleyball players (hoping for Olympic gold), a beach volleyball coach, and a table tennis player who were on the same flight with the physician tested positive for the virus as well. Dr. Voráček could have been vaccinated against covid but did not do so. Prime Minister Andrej Babiš has described the situation as a scandal and unfair approach to the athletes. „The threat to the athletes‘ participation in important events in connection with the sensitive topic of vaccination has sparked a record interest in Voráček. Within a day, he became a center of attention for media, but the interest of journalists quickly waned again,” says Martina Maňhalová, an analyst at Newton Media. The largest number of posts concerning the unvaccinated doctor was posted on Facebook (93 %), followed by comments under editorials, Twitter and various forums and blogs.
The debate leaders were undoubtedly former TOP 09 chairman Miroslav Kalousek and the MP for the SPD Party Tereza Hyťhová, whose Facebook posts dominated on social networks with their reach. While for Miroslav Kalousek, the vaccination refusal of Dr. Voráček was shocking, and he would impose the obligation to vaccinate as a condition for participation in the Olympic team, Tereza Hyťhová expressed her support for the doctor and described the situation as a „hunt“ for him. Other discussion posts dominated mainly on Facebook profiles of news websites. A lively debate also took place under articles on seznamzpravy.cz, idnes.cz, parlamentnilisty.cz and aeronet.cz. The comments often reacted to the main headlines of the reports, the physician himself. Voracek was titled „mysterious first infected“, „mysterious infected“ or „covid-doctor“. A different narrative was chosen by the disinformation server aeronet.cz. It described the situation as a targeted attack by fascist media on an unvaccinated doctor and changed the topic to low protection of vaccines against coronavirus mutations.
Condemnation of Dr. Voráček
Posts with a negative sentiment regarding Dr. Voráček prevailed in the discussion (57 %). Many blamed him for not being vaccinated against coronavirus, which further strengthened their opinion that the physician caused the COVID-19 outbreak among Czech athletes, ruining their chances to succeed at the Olympics. Some also took it as a disgrace to the entire Olympic committee and said that Voráček should financially compensate the athletes. In this context, there were views that participation in the Olympic team should be conditional on vaccination against COVID-19. Some found it ridiculous that Voráček advised patients to gargle with mouthwash instead of getting vaccinated.
There were fewer positive contributions (43%) than negative ones. For example, Vlastimil Voráček was defended by discussants that he met all the requirements, including testing before departure. Voráček’s supporters stated that vaccination is not mandatory for everyone, and it is a matter of choice. Some expressed support to Voráček and said this case resulted in an excessive media lynch, thus ruining his career. Other people expressed concern that the doctor himself may have become infected from vaccinated athletes.
„As many as 20 % of contributions concerning Dr. Voráček questioned the vaccination itself and its effect. The most important argument for these discussants was that vaccination would not prevent the infection,“ says Maňhalová. Another argument of vaccine deniers was the assumption that vaccination is only a business and, finally, people were annoyed that vaccination had become a pressure and a ticket to „normal“ life and travel.
Infomore.cz or an ocean of information about the pandemic
Analyzes mapping the media coverage of vaccination are produced within the Infomore.cz project, in which Newton Media participates with the Faculty of Social Sciences of Charles University with Václav Moravec as the lead researcher, and the Medical Faculty of Masaryk University in Brno. The project financed by the Technology Agency of the Czech Republic aims to reduce the so-called Infodemia, i.e., excessive dissemination of distorted and misleading information about the current COVID-19 pandemic. The Infomore.cz website, which reveals journalists‘ inadequate work with data or inappropriate referencing, has been visited by 14,000 unique users so far, representing journalists, media employees, and journalism students. At the end of the summer, the project was nominated for the prestigious competition of media intelligence companies AMEC Awards 2021. A professional jury selected Infomore.cz for a shortlist in three categories. The results of the competition will be announced in November.
Authors of the analysis: Martina Maňhalová, Nikola Kopáčová, Eva Růžičková