One common theme that has been revisited time and time again on this blog since its very founding is the problem of how science and medicine are reported. For example, back when I first started blogging, years before I joined Science-Based Medicine in 2008, one thing that used to drive me absolutely nuts was the tendency of the press to include in any story about vaccines an antivaccine activist to “tell the other side” or to “balance” the story. So in a story on vaccines, on one side you would have Paul Offit, a bona fide, legitimate vaccine expert, and on the other side you would have J.B. Handley, Jenny McCarthy, Andrew Wakefield, or a lesser light of the antivaccine movement. This same trope included stories about autistic children in which a reporter does a human interest story about a family struggling with raising an autistic child in which he lets the parents spout antivaccine misinformation, providing only a brief token quote by a scientist for “balance.” Thus, whether they intended it or not, the reporter would let the emotional impact of the story serve as persuasion to believe the parents’ antivaccine views. So, even though there was not (and hasn’t been at least since 2001 or probably much earlier) anything resembling legitimate scientific controversy over the question of whether vaccines cause or contribute to autism, the press aided the antivaccine movement in keeping alive the appearance of a controversy. It was, as I like to call these things, a manufactroversy, a controversy manufactured by the antivaccine movement to give the appearance of an actual scientific controversy. It’s a time-dishonored journalistic failing that is still a major problem with reporting on, for example, anthropogenic global climate change and genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
Sometimes, however, the press is teachable. A few years ago, after already having blogged about vaccines and autism for several years, I started noticing fewer stories with false “balance” and more stories that simply treated the antivaccine movement like the fringe movement it was, either not bothering to mention it or, if it had to mention it, basically letting scientists explain why it’s bad science and dangerous to public health. These days, false balance and stories that are antivaccine propaganda are relatively rare, aside from stories by fringe journalists like Sharyl Attkisson and Ben Swann. That’s a good thing. Unfortunately, I wish I could say that I really believe it was due to the efforts of skeptics and science advocates more than it was due to the discrediting of a major antivaccine figure, Andrew Wakefield, but even six years after Wakefield lost his medical license and saw his infamous 1998 Lancet paper linking the MMR vaccine to bowel disease in autistic children (the one that ignited the MMR scare in the UK) retracted, I’m not entirely sure. Be that as it may, there still remain blind spots in the press. (more…)