Dr. Paul Offit has spent his career researching and advocating for vaccine safety. As director of the Vaccine Education Centre at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, he sees at least one child die every year of a vaccine-preventable disease.
“At the heart of it is people don’t fear the disease,” Offit said. “As a consequence, I think, they don’t want to get vaccinated ― don’t want to get their kids vaccinated. And they’re looking for reasons not to do it.”
The anti-vaccination movement provides those reasons, he said.
While the media has gotten better on the vaccination issue, coverage of scientific issues suggests a debate, even when there aren’t two sides to the issue, Offit said.
“I think the media’s job is to entertain and ‘entertain’ means conflict. So, you tell two sides of the story when only one side is supported by the science because it’s more interesting,” he said.
“There aren’t two sides. You have a hypothesis and, ultimately, you’re right or you’re wrong,” explained Dr. Offit.
When asked whether the media has failed to report science stories accurately, Offit laughed and replied, “Right. I think that’s a understatement.”
The real failure of journalism is that the journalists who report on science stories aren’t science journalists, said Ben Radford, editor of the Skeptical Inquirer, a science magazine dedicated to investigating pseudoscience and educating the public on science. As news organisations shrink, they have fewer resources to develop journalists with an expertise in science, which means that general assignment reporters, who are expected to be able to cover anything, are covering science without in-depth knowledge of the subject, Radford explained.
“Last week they were reporting on Tiger Woods and next week they will be reporting on the storm in Boston and this week they’re reporting on vaccination,” he said.
Having general assignment reporters report on science may have broad social repercussions. In January, a Pew poll found that 68% of adults in the United States thought that children should have mandated vaccinations, compared with 86% of scientists. Considering that vaccinations are credited by groups such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as being one of the greatest public health achievements of the 20th century, why has public opinion and scientific consensus split on this issue?
Poor journalism, say scientists and physicians.
Anecdotes are latched onto by journalists because they make a sensational story, said Radford, the author of Media Mythmakers: How Journalists, Activists and Advertisers Mislead Us. Some journalists choose to downplay the scientific consensus in favour of emotionally-gripping anecdotes because it makes a compelling story, he said.
“It’s very dramatic and it gets readers.”
While the anecdotes are dramatic, the problem with using them in a science story is that they aren’t reliable as evidence, Radford said. He explained that it doesn’t matter whether it’s one anecdote or many anecdotes, it doesn’t add up to evidence.
“The plural of anecdotes is not data,” he said.
The mistake of treating anecdotes as data came to a head in the Toronto Star story “A wonder drug’s dark side,” published on Feb. 5, 2015. The story, which profiles women who claimed they were harmed by Gardasil, an HPV vaccine, drowned the science with anecdotes, Radford said.
Between the emotionally-compelling stories were such caveats as, “There is no conclusive evidence showing the vaccine caused a death or illness,” which appeared in the eleventh paragraph of the story. If the story had no evidence that linked the HPV vaccine to a single illness or death, “then what is the story?” The Star’s public editor Kathy English asked in her criticism of the article.
Emphasising anecdotes despite having no conclusive evidence linking them to Gardasil spreads misinformation about vaccinations, instills doubt in the reader’s mind and may lead them to not vaccinate.
Some parents have chosen not to vaccinate their children and have approached Heather Fraser, spokeswoman for Vaccine Choice Canada, with their concerns about vaccinations.
Vaccine Choice Canada is an activist group for vaccine exemptions which says that vaccines may do more harm than good and can lead to disorders such as autism. Most childhood vaccinations have been shown to produce immunity at least 90 per cent of the time and no causal relationship has been established between vaccinations and autism. The one study that linked the MMR vaccine to autism has been discredited, retracted and its author was stripped of his medical license.
“The history of the anti-vaccine movement is long and encompasses many different groups of people”
Most parents’ concerns come from stories in the United States which say that vaccinations for children led to autism, Fraser said.
“Parents are saying that vaccinations have contributed to autism,” she said. “Whether or not it’s been proven in science or disproved in science, it doesn’t matter. They’ve heard it, they’re worried and they’re questioning.”
Stories such as the one which appeared in the Star, which present doubts about safe vaccinations without any scientific evidence, give the public anecdotes upon which to justify their fears around vaccinations.
The article has been criticized over and over again. The Star’s publisher, John Cruickshank went on CBC’s As It Happens to defend the article. Despite acknowledging that there was a failure in the management of the story, he said, “We do not have, in the piece, any suggestion that we have definitive evidence that these terrible anecdotes are actually related, causally related to the inoculation.”
“They had no story,” said Jim Handman, a senior producer of Quirks and Quarks, an award-winning science show on CBC radio. While the media loves to humanize stories, it shouldn’t fall into the trap of anecdotes with science stories, he said.
In addition to humanizing the story, the media also wants to have balance in their stories, which means, in stories about vaccinations, there will be one person representing the scientific consensus on one side and one crackpot on the other, Handman said. When you have this kind of balance in science stories, the story just ends up being biased against science, he said.
At a time when science stories are in the news more than ever, the media needs to be more scientifically literate, Handman said.
Scientists also need to be more media literate, said Tim Caulfield, professor of law and public health at the University of Alberta.
Scientists need to engage the public because people are looking for answers to their health problems, Caulfield said. Right now, celebrities are telling the public what they want to hear, he said.
“Celebrities are providing people with the kind of answers they want,” he said. “Easy solutions.”
Science doesn’t provide easy solutions because it’s very complicated and can often have conflicting data, Caulfield said.
“Science is messy,” he said.
This is why the scientific community needs to start to think about science communication to get accurate information to the general public, Caulfield said.
“Scientists and the research community needs to get out there,” he said. “Social media is not going away. Celebrity culture is not going away. We need to be part of the discussion.”