Complexity and controversy in media coverage of Human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccination: A qualitative content analysis of news coverage in Denmark 2008–2018

Torben Esbo Agergaard, Màiri Smith, Ane Kathrine Lolholm Gammelby, Marie Louise Tørring, Kristian Hvidtfelt Nielsen*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journal/Conference contribution in journal/Contribution to newspaperJournal articleResearchpeer-review


Introduction: Traditional news media play an important, yet notoriously complex role in vaccination communication. News media remain a common source of information about vaccines and potentially influence individual decisions to choose vaccination or not. In Denmark, Human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccination rates remained relatively high until suspected adverse reactions began to receive extensive coverage in the news. Existing research studies associate the decline in HPV vaccination rates with misleading or negative news stories. Methods: We probed Danish media coverage beyond dichotomies such as misleading vs. informative, or negative vs. positive. We combined quantitative and qualitative approaches to media coverage of the Danish HPV vaccination crisis and recovery. Our research design focused on six national newspapers and allowed us to identify 865 articles published in periods of peak media coverage from 2008 to 2018 (extracted from a total sample of 1,437 articles published between 1991 and 2019). We used qualitative content analysis to discern the main topics covered, and we analyzed contextual factors that affected the meanings of our main topics. Results: Our results confirm the rise of suspected adverse reactions as the dominant main topic in 2015. However, we find that news stories about adverse reactions were diverse and closely related to other main topics such as conflicts of interests and debate among experts and other stakeholders. In 2017, the media began downplaying suspected adverse reactions when concerns about declining vaccination rates and misinformation by the media were voiced. Discussion: Our findings suggest that controversial media messages about vaccination are hard to classify as either negative or positive but must be interpreted carefully in context of what is known about the controversy. Learning from past media controversies remains important to understanding the media's role in the social construction of risks and benefits associated with vaccination.

Original languageEnglish
Article number1032460
JournalFrontiers in Communication
Number of pages14
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2023


  • Denmark
  • Human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccination
  • contextual approach
  • media coverage
  • qualitative content analysis


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