Fair and Balanced News: Too Much of a Good Thing

Image courtesy of Wikimedia user Mareklug (creative commons)

Image courtesy of Wikimedia user Mareklug (creative commons)

National Foundation for Infectious Diseases’ 12th Annual Conference on Vaccine Research, Baltimore, Maryland

I often hide my name badge at meetings if it proclaims my status as media. This is almost always to ward off PR flacks. Today, I slunk out of an afternoon session of the NFID’s vaccine research meeting hiding my badge because I was just plain embarrassed.

As part of a talk on autism NOT being linked to vaccinations, Dr. Paul A. Offit took the media to task for giving equal time and weight to the other side, i.e. Jenny McCarthy and the vaccines-gave-my-kid-autism lobby. Dr. Offit, who is the head of the Infectious Diseases section at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, cited the late Tim Russert’s “Meet the Press'”segment, which gave equal time to Dr. Harvey Fineberg, head of the Institute of Medicine, and former Dean of the Harvard School of Public Health and David Kirby, a journalist who wrote a book about the link betweent autism and the MMR vaccine.  [Full disclosure: Dr. Offit is the author of the book Autism’s False Prophets: Bad Science, Risky Medicine, and the Search for a Cure]  His point was not whether it was a fair fight but that it shouldn’t have been a fight at all, given the preponderance of evidence against a link.

I admit that I slunk lower in my seat to hide the day-glow green ribbon shouting “PRESS”.  I’d like to say by way of disclaimer that there is a huge difference between those of us who write for physicians and those who write for the lay public.  I have a chemistry degree for crying out loud.  Still, I felt guilty by association.

I knew immediately where the disconnect is.  As a journalism student, it was drummed into my head that there are TWO sides to every story and you are doing your readers a disservice by not including both in your story.  No one ever said anything about evaluating the relative weight to give to those two sides. 

Admittedly, distraught parents of autistic children make for very compelling reading and viewing.  They do not, however, offset the eons of medical and scientific training and the mountains of data that tell us that vaccines do not cause autism.  The scientists—because they are scientists and can’t say with statistical absolute certainty that vaccines do not cause autism—do not phrase it this way but it’s what the evidence amounts to. 

And don’t even get me (or Dr. Offit) started on the Oprah episode with Ms. McCarthy…

For an excellent discussion of the bad science involved in the autism vs. vaccines pseudocontroversy, see surgical oncologist Dr. David Gorski’s blog post on Science-Based Medicine.

—Kerri Wachter (@knwachter)

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1 Comment

Filed under Infectious Diseases, Pediatrics, Psychiatry

One response to “Fair and Balanced News: Too Much of a Good Thing

  1. John N

    This same point applies to several other alleged “controversies” where a small group tries to manipulate the media despite the fact that the scientific points have been settled for years (if not decades or longer).

    The cigarette industry’s fight against the association of smoking with health problems is a perfect example. After studies in the 1950s showed that health problems associated with smoking were killing tens of thousands of people each year, the tobacco industry launched a PR campaign that claimed the association hadn’t been “proven.” They used press releases and ads to denounce epidemiological research as “mere statistics,” argued that animal research wasn’t valid because it didn’t reflect the human condition, and that lung pathologies revealed by autopsies were simply anecdotes.

    Other groups have followed the same game plan, and have manipulated the media in the same way you’ve described: the lead and asbestos industries, the anti-evolution/Young Earth Creationism/ID movement, and the global warming denial movement (heavily supported by the petroleum and coal industries, among others).

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