by Greg Mayer
Curtis Brainard, editor of The Observatory, the Columbia Journalism Review‘s online science journalism section, has a nice article up tracing the role of the news media in encouraging and spreading anti-vaccination pseudoscience, including the role of the disgraced British physician Andrew Wakefield, and the fear mongering of Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. (The latter once wrote a piece for Salon, which Salon later deleted, in doing so decrying the fraud tainted “science” of those propagating ” the debunked, and dangerous, autism-vaccine link.”) He discusses the differing reactions and developments in the UK and the US, including how anti-vaccine pseudoscience developed later in the US, and how some journalists built their careers around promoting pseudoscience.
One thing he notes is that “balanced” reporting seems to have helped encourage the spread of the bogus claims:
[T]he study [of journalistic coverage] raises the problem of “objectivity” in stories for which a preponderance of evidence is on one side of a “debate.” In such cases, “balanced” coverage can be irresponsible, because it suggests a controversy where none really exists. (Think climate change, and how such he-said-she-said coverage helped sustain the illusion of a genuine debate within the science community.)
Although Brainard did not mention it, I’m sure that WEIT readers will immediately see the parallels to coverage of creationism and “teach the controversy” campaigns. I once parodied such he said-she said coverage here at WEIT:
You’ve all read the kind of story that will have a line like, “Dr. Smith, a paleontologist at the natural history museum, said Triceratops had been extinct for more than 60 million years before the origin of man, while Dr. Jones from the institute said Triceratops had been ridden by men like horses until the recent worldwide flood drowned them all”.
I’m glad to see that media critics like Brainard are critiquing this type of reporting, and that many journalists are becoming aware of the dangers of “balance” when one side has nothing at all. Other previous posts on vaccines at WEIT here and here. For regular coverage of medical pseudoscience, see Orac’s Respectful Insolence, and Ben Goldacres’s Bad Science.
h/t Andrew Sullivan