It’s that season again: Another outbreak of a benign childhood disease that only a couple of generations ago the vast majority of the US population contracted and recovered from, serendipitously occurring precisely at the time when legislators across the country are putting forward bills to strip parents of the right to choose whether or not to vaccinate their own children.
In this climate of interest-driven hysteria, it is important to be able to distinguish between reliable information on the issue, and misinformation. Here is one quick way to tell the difference:
Take a look at these three recent articles on the “crisis” of parents who choose not to vaccinate their children. Do you notice something they all have in common?
Urban Yogini: A Superh... Best Price: $17.04 Buy New $17.10 (as of 08:35 EDT - Details) Leaving aside the frenzied headlines, what all three share is something common to the vast majority of mainstream articles about the vaccine controversy. You’d be forgiven for thinking that it is the obligatory recitation of some version of the “Wakefield catechism.” Here is one, from KTVQ:
“The mistaken belief in a connection can be traced back to 1998, when a doctor in the U.K. published a now discredited study claiming the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine was linked to autism. His research was found to be based on fraudulent data, the study was retracted, and the doctor lost his medical license.”
Nearly everything in this statement is false.
Dr. Wakefield’s study (he was actually one of 13 doctors on the paper) did not make the claim that the MMR vaccine was linked to autism, but stated: “We did not prove an association between measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine and the syndrome described. Virological studies are underway that may help to resolve this issue.”
Nor was the paper based on fraudulent research. Dr. Wakefield, along with Dr. John Walker-Smith, the paper’s senior co-author, were indeed “discredited” and stripped of their medical licenses. However neither “fraud” nor “manipulating data” nor anything relating to the soundness of the research were among the charges laid against either one (you can look for yourself. It’s a searchable document).
Furthermore, in 2012, Dr. Walker-Smith won his appeal against the charges, in the High Court of Justice, Queen’s Bench Division. (Dr. Wakefield did not appeal the decisions against him, as his insurance would not cover the legal expenses.) In his ruling, Justice John Mitting wrote:
“…the panel’s overall conclusion that Professor Walker-Smith was guilty of serious professional misconduct was flawed…[there was] inadequate and superficial reasoning and, in a number of instances, a wrong conclusion… The panel’s determination cannot stand. I therefore quash it.”
None of these facts will ever make it into a mainstream article about vaccines. Nor will the fact that concerns about autism being related to vaccines neither began nor ended with the 1998 Lancet paper. Studies both before that paper and after (including a study by the CDC, in which one of the scientists has accused the CDC of falsifying data so as to conceal a possible connection) have shown a possible link between vaccines (including the MMR vaccine) and autism.
Indeed, one of the US government’s own expert witnesses, Dr. Andrew Zimmerman has admitted that “…in a subset of children, vaccine induced fever and immune stimulation did cause regressive brain disease with features of autism spectrum disorder.”
So yes, it would be understandable to think that the near-unison recitation of these falsehoods about the lack of a vaccine-autism connection, and about the Wakefield study in particular, was the primary feature that these articles have in common – as indeed they do. But there’s something else.
I was a professional journalist for many years. And I’m pretty sure that if I had ever written a story about a controversial topic, but only interviewed people on one side of that controversy, I would have lost my job. If it had happened more than once, I would absolutely have lost my job – as should any other “journalist” who behaves similarly.
And yet, over and over again, in coverage throughout the mainstream media about vaccines, this is precisely what we see. Articles repeating the same assertions (rarely with any supporting evidence provided) that “vaccines are safe” and “vaccines do not cause autism”, and speaking with qualified spokespeople only on the pro-vaccine side of the issue. Typically, this spokesperson will be Dr. Paul Offit, chief of infectious diseases at Philadelphia Children’s Hospital, and typically the article will not mention his financial conflicts of interest – another breach of basic journalistic standards (not to mention explicit policy at many publications) for which any journalist ought to be unceremoniously sacked.
Occasionally, as with the KTVQ piece above, a journalist will speak with an “anti-vaxxer” parent. Never one, though, who references any of the scientific literature on the topic, and absolutely never any actual scientists or doctors who have concerns about vaccine safety.
It’s not because they don’t exist. Here is Dr. Toni Bark, for instance, giving testimony at hearings recently held in Washington State about a proposed vaccine mandate there. Dr. Brian Hooker also gave testimony, as did attorney Robert Kennedy Jr. Indeed, there are many researchers and medical professionals who are critical of vaccines and who do not accept the mainstream mantras insisting that they are safe. Why Mommy Loves the State Best Price: $19.88 Buy New $18.60 (as of 08:05 EDT - Details)
But you will never hear about any of these scientists and doctors from mainstream news outlets. Why not? Because what those outlets are engaged in is not journalism. It is something else.
The conversation around vaccines has been manipulated for a long time, largely by those who have an interest in making and selling vaccines. Pharmaceutical companies spend billions of dollars each year on advertising, and as such, exert a great deal of influence on publishers and broadcasters. As genuine journalists, such as Sharyl Attkisson and Jeremy R. Hammond, have carefully documented, what the media tells us science says about vaccines, and what the science actually says, are two very different – and often contradictory – things.
Whatever your views on vaccines, the fact (don’t take my word for it, go and look for yourself) that only one side of the controversy is reported in the mainstream media ought to give you pause. If what the proponents of vaccines say about them is true, if they really are “safe and effective”, if adverse reactions really are so very rare, and if the science really is settled, then why can’t journalists report honestly about this? If those who have concerns about vaccine safety really are just kooks and frauds, then why are the people who cover the topic afraid to speak to them?