This article originally appeared here: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/oct/16/anti-vaccination-activists-should-not-be-given-a-say-in-the-media
Imagine this scenario: you’re covering a story on circumnavigating the globe so you interview a geographer to get their views, but for the sake of balance you also get a representative from the Flat Earth Society. Seems absurd right?
Sure. But as a scientist, I see this kind of ridiculous “balance” happening all the time in stories concerning science and medicine. And it’s not just bad because it insults my delicate scientifical sensibilities, research now tells us that it can actually be harmful.
Let’s look at vaccination as an example. Assume that 99% of experts support the view that childhood vaccinations are overwhelmingly safe and effective, whilst 1% do not. Why then would the mainstream media run stories where a doctor or scientist offers a qualified, considered, researched, opinion and then turn to a wing nut who’s spent a couple of hours on Dr Google and has decided vaccines are bad, m’kay?
There’s a term to describe giving more time to opposing view points than the evidence actually supports – false balance.
So okay, my “feelpinions” might get hurt, but does it really matter otherwise? Well yes, it turns out it does.
A recent study reports that stories about vaccines that include false balance are actually more dangerous than those that are purely anti-vaccine. Yes, you read that correctly. Stories that offer both sides of the coin can have a greater negative influence on people’s decision to not vaccinate than those that are purely anti-vaccine.
Let’s drill down on it a little further. In the study, 320 undergraduate students were assigned a news item presenting either claims both for and against a vaccine/autism link (false balance), a purely anti-vax “vaccines-definitely-cause-autism” article and a “there is no link” article.
Unsurprisingly, the participants who read the article saying vaccines cause autism indicated they would be less likely to have their children vaccinated in the future. But what was surprising was those who read the false balance article were even less confident about the safety of vaccines than the “vaccines-definitely-cause-autism” article.
The authors suggested the reasons for this may be that false balance elicits a stronger perception that experts are divided, or that experts truly are uncertain whether vaccines cause autism (let me make this crystal clear, there is no good evidence to support a link between vaccines and autism, but as an urban myth it is an unsinkable rubber duck).
The Australian media, to their credit, have moved away from false balance in vaccine stories over the last few years. I like to think that grassroots campaigning has contributed to that, even if only a little. Certainly, I personally have made an effort to explain why false balance is bad and in some cases I’ve even declined to participate in stories if journalists insist on including anti-vaccine campaigners.
I now know of a couple of mainstream media outlets who have policies of not speaking to anti-vaxers at all when they do science based vaccine stories, which is a fantastic result. Indeed, one prime time magazine-style programme issued this statement on their Facebook page following a complaint from a viewer about an appearance I made on the show to discuss a measles outbreak.
Anti-vaccination is a fringe opinion. For every 5 doctors who oppose vaccination there are 95 who support it. We are not obliged to provide equal time and space to unscientific and dangerous viewpoints. And I couldn’t agree more.
But the consequences of airing false balance vaccine stories extend beyond just making me throw cushions at my TV screen. Recently, WIN television were reported to the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) for including false statements from a prominent anti-vaccine lobbyist in a news story about a measles outbreak. Media Watch’s Jonathan Holmes didn’t mince his words when he said:
There’s evidence and then there’s bulldust. It’s a journalists job to distinguish between them, not to sit on the fence and bleat balance, especially when people’s health is at risk.
Holmes’ last point really highlights the crux of the issue. In recent years in Australia, several babies have died from whooping cough as a result of outbreaks in areas where levels of vaccination are dangerously low.The media was also partly blamed for contributing to another measles epidemic in Swansea, Wales that persisted for eight months, resulting in a total of 1,219 cases and the death of one person.
Large numbers of children in the 10-18 age bracket had not received their scheduled measles, mumps, rubella (MMR) vaccines, partly due to significant, uncritical coverage by the British media of false claims about the safety of MMR in 1998. The vaccine/autism claims were initiated by Andrew Wakefield who was subsequently struck off the medical register, his scientific study scratched from the record, and has gone onto be named by Time magazine as one of the “great science frauds” of modern history.
Whilst no one gets hurt if you ask a flying carpet salesman questions about commercial flight, the consequences of people not vaccinating are real and potentially tragic. With vaccination, there is not debate. The science is in and the benefits far outweigh the risks. No balance required.