Issue 39 / 8 October 2012

ONE of the most enthralling science stories of this year has been the landing of NASA’s Curiosity rover on Mars, with its eerie pictures of arid landscapes and of an ancient dried-up streambed.

But where was the balance in these reports?

Why didn’t we hear from the Flat Earth Society on why the whole thing was just an elaborate hoax? Or from astrologers warning of the catastrophic effects such interplanetary exploration might have on the love lives of Librans?

OK, I made that last one up but, when it comes to reporting science, some of my colleagues in the media are, to say the least, selective about which stories require the inclusion of dissenting voices and which do not.

Astronomers are rarely challenged. The findings of evolutionary biologists don’t generally have to contend with creationist arguments about our descent from Adam and Eve. Scientists announcing a “cancer breakthrough” tend to receive a rapturous and uncritical reception.

But the media response can be quite different when the subject is climate change or — as last week’s report on the ABC television program Media Watch made clear — vaccination.

In August this year, WIN TV in Wollongong reported on a measles outbreak in south-western Sydney, including an interview with a doctor who recommended vaccination against the disease.

Fine, you might think, but the reporter followed that advice with: “There remains heated discussion about possible links between the jab and the development of autism.”

Hmm. Not among people with even the vaguest understanding of science, there doesn’t.

But that didn’t stop WIN from trotting out Meryl Dorey, whose spectacularly misnamed Australian Vaccination Network (AVN) is indefatigable in its battle against universal immunisation.

“All vaccinations in the medical literature have been linked with the possibility of causing autism, not just the measles/mumps/rubella vaccine”, opined Ms Dorey, who was identified by the program as representing “choice groups”.

WIN did not respond to Media Watch’s questions about why it chose to include the AVN’s misleading claims about vaccines in a story about a measles outbreak, but the program did obtain a copy of a letter the station wrote in response to a viewer complaint.

The story was “accurate, fair and balanced”, the letter said.

A doctor provided the opinion that everybody should be immunised, while Ms Dorey presented “the other side of the story”, urging parents not to panic and to become informed about “the diseases children are vaccinated against, and about the vaccines themselves”.

“Our story presented the medical and the choice group view”, the letter went on.

As Media Watch presenter Jonathan Holmes testily concluded: “Medical practitioners/choice groups. One opinion as valid as the other. It’s a classic example of what many — especially despairing scientists — call ‘false balance’ in the media.”

Balance … it sounds like a good thing, and generally, of course, it is. But too often this noble concept is used to justify providing a platform to all manner of obsessive cranks with a barrow to push.

I have had, sometimes heated, discussions with other journalists reluctant to acknowledge that responsible and truthful reporting of scientific issues requires them to make a judgement about whose opinions are actually worth repeating.

The ABC editorial policies, revised last year, got it right when they declared one of the hallmarks of impartiality was “a balance that follows the weight of the evidence”.

Journalists, in other words, are not obliged to give a voice to the Flat Earth Society.

Something WIN TV would do well to take note of.

Jane McCredie is a Sydney-based science and medicine writer.

Posted 8 October 2012

21 thoughts on “Jane McCredie: Media balancing act

  1. marianne trent says:

    Great story as always Jane. We have fought for years to get the media to realise that there is no “balance” in an argument regarding the science of vaccination. I really think that we are now winning but it is disappointing to see that it is still happening

  2. Steve Hambleton says:

    Well said Jane. Keep up the good work.

  3. David says:

    I agree that it is a good story and the media who give space to this and similar stories are neither balanced or informed. However, controversy trumps good evidence as shown by last week’s Catalyst program on multiple sclerosis, which unquestioningly promoted the vascular and infectious origins of MS, theories that are generally discredited by the neurology world. As is often the case the theories offer a simple solution to a complex problem, are based on limited personal experience, not backed by scientific evidence and are primarily aimed at vulnerable people who have distressing chronic disease.
    This program went to air despite the ABC’s editorial policy cited above.

    Posted 8 October 2012

  4. The goose and the gander says:

    The media’s handling and dissemination of the misinformation around vaccination has caused significant fallout for public health outcomes. Thankfully it seems that the medical profession in the main has evaluated the relevant scientific information and has been vocal in countering the harmful bias. However, there are other conditions which have been subjected to a similar pattern of media reporting, wherein misinformation and the opinions of extremist groups are massively overrepresented. One of these is ADHD. Unfortunately, in this case, many in the medical profession have chosen to echo the misinformation, instead of applying the necessary attention to the scientific evidence. This has many consequences, including the ongoing stigmatisation of people with ADHD, mis- and missed diagnosis, and undoubtedly detrimental effects on individual and public health.
    What’s good for the goose is good for the gander. Take a look at the facts before making purely value based statements or becoming an unwitting mouthpiece for the people behind the media reports.

  5. Leigh Dayton says:

    As Peter Doherty once said on this very issue, “you don’t give equal time to Nazis”.

  6. drjohn says:

    Yes; thank you Jane.
    There is a well argued piece in “The Conversation”
    Deakin University philosopher Patrick Stokes suggested “not all opinions are created equal: that evidence matters and some of the shrill views we encounter in public debate aren’t worth a jot – and should not be given credence – as long as they remain unsupported by facts or convincing argument.
    We are not “entitled to our own opinion” if we are arguing facts.
    The anti-vaccination lobbyists are not arguing facts; they are giving opinions.
    Maybe I should be given space to air my opinion of the lobbyists but I doubt I could back it with facts.

  7. drjohn says:

    PS I wholeheartedly agree about ” Curiosity” and the previous rovers. And Hubble and the other spacescopes ! Who would have thought we could have a ringside seat to other worlds. Brilliant science at its best.

  8. Kate Stewart says:

    Well said. I think (I hope!) that the pendulum is starting gradually to swing the other way, from a climate of emphasising ‘balanced’ opinion between pro- and anti- to one where expert evidence-based opinion is given more weight. We’re starting to see it in the area of climate change science, where the ravings of the ‘sceptics’ are being given less airtime than hitherto. Maybe this is wishful thinking, but I’m optimistic!

  9. Little Powder says:

    Excellent article on the need for evidence-based medical journalism.

  10. Sue Ieraci says:

    Thanks, Jane – great article. We seem to have developed a post-modernist “every view is equal” culture, with a dose of anti-intellectualism. Best countered with “you are entitled to your own views but not to your own facts”.

  11. Richard Pearson says:

    Jane, can you please state your take on the greenhouse effect theory. You know, the single thing that underpins ‘climate change’ post-normal science. Did you know that the basic radiative model for calculating average temperature at the surface of the earth using the S-B equation considers the earth as a flat disc – not a sphere.And it divides the actual insolation power of the sun on the earth by a factor of four to compensate for failing to consider the earth as a rotating sphere. Funny – that sounds like a flat earth.

  12. Kalori says:

    We do know that vaccines are not 100% safe. No one knows how safe, really. The gatherers of the data (TGA) confirm that. This means that some children will be adversely affected. That is what “not 100% safe” means. But, you say, “The benefits outweigh the risks”. Maybe, maybe not. Find me one paper showing any vaccine is effective in preventing the disease – not in creating antibodies – but in preventing the disease, that is not written or published or funded by someone who has benefited from the profits of pharmaceuticals, and I will be greatly surprised. This is part of the overdiagnosis and overtreatment debate. Every child is diagnosed as requiring vacccine to make them a healthy member of the community, and given expensive treatment en masse. A lot of them do not need it and some WILL BE worse off.
    This is something we do need a lot of debate about, and some sound independent research to base it on.

  13. Sue Ieraci says:

    Kalori has repeated all the old tropes of the anti-vaccination movement: they claim that anti-bodies don’t mean immunity, that vaccination doesn’t prevent disease, and that none of the studies of vaccines are free from vested interests. Kalori, those false arguments might work on some members of the general public, but many readers here understand human physiology and have treated many children with infectious diseases over decades, seeing conditions like epiglottitis virtually disappear over recent decades. Conspiracy theories don’t wash here.

  14. Richard Gordon says:

    The difficulty in finding balanced opinion on scientific issues like vaccination was born out by the ABC’s Catalyst program receiving the Australian Skeptics BENT SPOON AWARD for an episode on vaccination some years ago. In that episode the anti-vaccination side received more time than the spokesman describing the scientific evidence for immunisation. When “respected” programs like Catalyst can get it so wrong what chance the average citizen?

  15. drjohn says:

    What is your point Richard?
    Do you believe the vast majority of the science that tells us CO2 increases in the atmosphere are anthropogenic and leading to increased average temperatures?
    Or are you a climate-change denialist who is cherry-picking irrelevancies.
    There is no “single thing that underpins climate-change post-normal ( post- normal ??) science”
    The theory of AGW is based on a huge variety and mass of data supporting the idea.
    Like all theories, it will stand or fall on evidence and facts. So far, it stands.
    Jane’s personal “take” on anthropogenic global warming is about as relevant as Dorey’s on immunisation or yours on AGW.
    I suspect Jane and most of the science-based contributers to the discussion actually read and understand the facts.
    That seems to be the thrust of this article.

  16. CBoughton says:

    Kalori: If you are serious in your assertions, look up the Medical Journal of Australia, vol 160 page 459, 18 April 1994; the MJA office may get you access to it, or one of the Univ. or municipal libraries will help. The article is titled:”The Evidence in favour of immunisation – a world without smallpox – a world without polio” by Feery et al. This is one of many scientific papers giving relevant evidence, not mere opinions.
    Jane is to be complimented on her article.

  17. Alex Wood says:

    Well done Jane

  18. Michael King says:

    As was once said, “Against stupidity the gods themselves contend in vain”. I find any attempt to discuss vaccination with these true believers very frustrating, as they insist their “evidence” (usually unverified internet pages) is clear but claim that any evidence contrary is part of a cover-up by those arrogant greedy doctors and their Big Pharma masters. Having had to intubate a seriously ill child with pertussis I think the only way any parent could deny immunisation to their child, in the absence of a documented severe allergy, is to have never seen these illnesses in the wild. If it were not that such a path would affect the rest of us it would be tempting to suggest these folks be referred to Dr Darwin for a dose of natural selection.

  19. david says:

    Michael King is right. One of the best pieces of advice I had was “never argue with dogs, children or idiots”.

  20. Chris Strakosch says:

    I’m always a little puzzled about the views of the anti-vaccination people. I would have thought that the one glorious triumph of Western Medicine has been the elimination of smallpox and polio by vaccination. I don’t think however that we can win by trying to suppress the opposing view, which would play into the hands of the conspiracy theorists. Just keep presenting the evidence.
    On the other hand irrational behaviour and beliefs are one of the glories of the human race. Why would any rational person want to pull a sled across Antarctica? Or believe in a god?

  21. Sue Ieraci says:

    Chris – the problem with the vocal anti-vaccinationists is that they circulate false information that influences others, thereby influencing the health of others and jeopardising one of the most effective public health measures of all time. With international access to mass audiences through the internet, it is impossible to go about correcting information everywhere. When an anti-vaxer claims that “antibodies don’t mean immunity” or that vaccines contain dangerous “toxins”, how is the general punter to know better?

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