"Sticking With the Truth"

"How ‘balanced’ coverage helped sustain the bogus claim that childhood vaccines can cause autism"

"In 1998, The Lancet, one of the most respected medical journals, published a study by lead author Andrew Wakefield, a British physician who claimed there might be a link between the vaccine for measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) and autism, the developmental disorder that afflicts one out of every 88 children in the US. The paper coincided with growing concern among parents in the US and UK about a possible connection between the rising number of childhood vaccinations and the rising rate of autism among kids. Although the trends were only coincidental, Wakefield’s paper helped spark a debate about the supposed link that has played out in the media over the last 15 years.

Among scientists, however, there really was never much of a debate; only a small group of researchers ever even entertained the theory about autism. The coverage rarely emphasized this, if it noted it at all, and instead propagated misunderstanding about vaccines and autism and gave credence to what was largely a manufactured controversy. As Ben Goldacre, a British doctor and media critic, wrote in his 2008 bestseller, Bad Science: “[Y]ou will see news reporters, including the BBC, saying stupid things like ‘The research has since been debunked.’ Wrong. The research never justified the media’s ludicrous over-interpretation. If they had paid attention, the scare would never have even started.”

The consequences of this coverage go beyond squandering journalistic resources on a bogus story. There is evidence that fear of a link between vaccines and autism, stoked by press coverage, caused some parents to either delay vaccinations for their children or decline them altogether. To be sure, more than 90 percent of children in both the US and the UK receive the recommended shots according to schedule, but in 2012, measles infections were at an 18-year high in the UK, reflecting low and bypassed immunization in some areas. In the US, vaccine-preventable diseases reached an all-time low in 2011, but the roughly one in 10 children who get their shots over a different timeframe than the one recommended by the medical establishment, and the less than 1 percent who go entirely unvaccinated, are enough to endanger some communities. And American and British authorities have blamed recent outbreaks of measles and whooping cough on decisions to delay or decline vaccination."

Curtis Brainard reports for Columbia Journalism Review May 1, 2013.

SEE ALSO:

"How the Media Fed the Anti-Vaccine Movement" (Knight Science Journalism Tracker)

Source: Columbia Journalism Review, 05/09/2013