Thursday, 2 May 2013

How the Press Betrayed Britain's (and America's) Children

Is the press 100 per cent responsible for the measles outbreaks, or is it just around 50 per cent? Sure, greedy fraudster Andrew Wakefield was entirely responsible for the original MMR hoax, which he perpetrated by producing dodgy 'research' and conning a respected medical journal into publishing it. But what of the newspapers? Did they just calmly sit back and report a controversy between experts?

No. As this excellent piece by Curtis Brainard explains, the press caused the measles problem. Yes, Wakefield cynically played on the fears of some parents concerning vaccines. He wouldn't have been much of a con-artist if he hadn't. But, as Ben Goldacre pointed out, the original press reports were handled by science or medicine correspondents and they adopted a sensible position - that Wakefield was a fringe figure and there was no real scientific concern about MMR.

What happened next, though, is that regular news editors got hold of the story and blew it up into a major crisis. Tony Blair refused to say whether his son Leo had been vaccinated (though he had). The story spread to the US, with Wakefield given massive publicity by not only the press but also by politicians. Journalists, purporting to report a controversy, fanned the flames of public confusion and panic over MMR because - long after Wakefield was wholly discredited - they deliberately kept the story alive. Or, to cite Dr Goldacre again:
“[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.”
Simply referring to something as a possibility influences some sections public opinion, as anyone who's ever come within sniffing distance of the Mail's more toxic content knows.
The two scholars assigned 320 undergrads to read either a “balanced” article or one that was one-sided for or against a link between vaccines and autism. Those students who read the “balanced” articles were far more likely to believe that a link existed than those who read articles that said no link exits.
There's a timeline for the Wakefield hoax here. It's notable that, when Wakefield was discredited, it was thanks to the work of an investigative reporter, Brian Deer, who simply went to work on the story, old style. The time-honoured maxim 'follow the money' worked. Deer found that Wakefield's patients were all litigants seeking damages from the NHS and that hundreds of thousands of pounds were riding on the bogus MMR 'research'. He discovered that Wakefield had performed unethical procedures on children. He produced a detailed profile of a shameless, greedy fraudster who now lives, very comfortably, in America.

Deer's work - exhaustive, detailed, joining the dots, making sense of it all - represents what the press should have aspired to from the start, but didn't. Now we're experiencing a measles epidemic and that same press is, predictably, harrumphing at the NHS for not doing more to get kids - and young adults - vaccinated.

And then there's this:
In a series of articles for Reuters in January and February, reporter Kate Kelland described how a Finnish researcher endured months of ridicule and accusations from colleagues while trying to establish a link between a flu vaccine called Pandemrix and an outbreak of narcolepsy among children in Europe. Eventually, other studies confirmed the link, Kelland reported, but she added a cautionary note: “After the false alarm sounded by British doctor Andrew Wakefield, some scientists say they are more hesitant to credit reports of potential side effects from vaccines.” That chilling effect might extend to journalists as well; Kelland was one of only a few reporters in the US or the UK to cover the Pandemrix story.
Objective reporting of a real scientific controversy concerning vaccines? No thanks. We'd rather not remind our loyal readers how brilliantly we handled the last one.

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