False balance: A science journalism pitfall

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Preparing a measles vaccine in Ethiopia by DFID – UK Department for International Development via Flickr

Earlier tonight (1 Oct 2012), the program MediaWatch (a program that critiques the media in Australia), aired the fact that WIN TV in covering a story on the measles vaccine had stated that the vaccine was still thought to be linked to the occurrence of autism and that the scientific community was in debate over it and had quotes from the Australian Vaccination Network stating as such. Transcript, video & documents from the MediaWatch program are here for those playing along at home.

Quick background info: Most of the scientific community is NOT debating over this and so far the medical advice is to give your children the MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccine. For those who still don’t understand vaccination, the vaccine is a dead, inert form of the disease and it is totally inept and can’t harm you but what does happen is that the antibodies in your body (your biological defense system) recognise it and start preparing. If you then ever do catch the actual live form of the disease, your antibodies are already primed and waiting to annihilate it before it does any damage..

Back to WIN TV’s error in reporting: It’s an example of false balance.

False balance is when a journalist, usually when covering a science or health story, makes different points of view seem more balanced than they actually are. In other words, in an effort to report all sides of the story equally regardless of whether any one particular side has more reputable, reliable evidence for its claim over the others, there results an inaccurate description of events and facts as they actually are.

Science journalists usually do this because they are either not as knowledgeable about the topic they are covering, get deceived by the evidence a side may portray because they don’t understand how the science/research process/statistics work or because they believe that reporting on all viewpoints is fair and balanced.

But it isn’t if you haven’t the evidence to back up all the viewpoints. A rather extreme exaggerated example I use to explain it to students is that it would be like someone reporting that the world is round and then giving the Flat Earth Society equal airtime for their point of view and summing up by saying that researchers are equally divided as to whether the Earth is flat or an sphere that is somewhat more bulgy at the Equator. In case you were wondering, it’s the latter and it has to do with the centrifugal rotation of the Earth, and quite a lot of people have known that the Earth is an oblate spheroid (aka “bulgy in the middle round thing”) for far longer than one would think (Eratosthenes, Ptolemy, Columbus – yes he did, he nicked Portugal’s secret maps and underestimated the distance).

In this case, WIN TV has erroneously led people to believe that there could be a link between vaccines and the prevalence of autism despite the scientific evidence (Peltola et al, Lancet 1998; B Taylor et al, Lancet 1999; Madsen et al, New England Journal of Medicine 2002)  that indicates that there isn’t one. And it does a disservice to those viewers because reporting on matters of health is important and a confusing report that firsts presents sound medical advice and then discredits it is of no real use to anyone and merely spreads disinformation.

A simple Google Scholar search for “autism vaccine” brings up several publicly available scientific papers on the topic. The paper by Madsen et al in 2002 states figures and the conclusion right in its online abstract:

CONCLUSIONS

This study provides strong evidence against the hypothesis that MMR [measles, mumps, rubella] vaccination causes autism.

The Australian Vaccination Network is a group that fervently believes in the link between autism and vaccination going even as far as Jonathan Holmes on MediaWatch put it:

“But Meryl Dorey’s deceptively -named Australian Vaccination Network is in fact an obsessively anti-vaccination pressure group that’s immunised itself against the effect of scientific evidence.”

MediaWatch then quoted The New South Wales Director of Health Protection, Dr Jeremy McAnulty:

“Any link between measles vaccine and autism has been conclusively discredited by numerous in-depth studies and reviews by credible experts, including the World Health Organisation, the American Academy of Paediatrics and the UK Research Council.”

— Dr Jeremy McAnulty, Director of Health Protection, NSW Health, 28th September, 2012

“Credible experts” is key here. When working in science journalism and following up such stories, one shouldn’t treat it the same way one treats the coverage of a political campaign. Tell us the facts of the story as they stand, corroborate them and if there is disagreement, then there should be tangible evidence on all sides before the claims are paid any attention to and this should go for all forms of journalism.

I think the issue of “false balance” can be avoided if journalists do a few very simple things:

1) Educate themselves on how research is conducted in the field, how the scientific methods work and how peer review works.

2) Educate themselves as much as possible on the subject beforehand so that they can spot faulty logic.

3) Only report on what has been corroborated as fact and for which there is reliable, reputable evidence.

4) Do some research into the people they choose to talk to.

The last one is particularly relevant because the false balance problem could have been easily avoided if the WIN TV journalists had actually done something simple: researched their sources prior to interviewing them.

It’s an extremely basic thing to ensure that your sources are credible before you even start.  A simple google search gives you not just the group’s website but the fact that there is a news report from 2010 about them harassing parents, several sites that state it is “an anti-vaccination lobby group” and even a report that there is a group called the SAVN (Stop The AVN) that’s out to stop them after the death of a baby in 2009 from a disease it could have been vaccinated against. A mere Google search is often not enough but it seemed clear that even that hadn’t been done. 

So the question now is why didn’t they do it?

We could have all sorts of answers for that – a lack of time and a deadline, a lack of resources and so on. But the fact is that it is basic and it should have been done and if it couldn’t be done due to time and resource constraints, then something needs to change.

Because getting caught in MediaWatch’s headlights for not doing your job properly is not what you want at all for your news organisation.

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Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 Australia
This work by Marisa Wikramanayake is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 Australia.
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