The Autistic Journalist

Using words to explain the mind

PBS vaccinates public with information

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PBS always find itself in the middle of controversies. Not of their own doing of course, but thanks to their flagship documentary program, Frontline, they often explore contemporary issues that aren’t ethically compromised since they’re not run by a for-profit conglomerate compared to most networks.

A few weeks ago, the network that coined “Viewers Like You” broadcast a Frontline episode titled “The Vaccine War.” Autism followers are already aware of the emotionally charged debate that started when Dr. Andrew Wakefield published his now discredited study that proposed a link between MMR vaccines and autism. But even autistics must share. While the autism debate gets about half of the allotted time for the show, PBS also examined the broader issue of alternative medicine. The core controversy Frontline discovered surrounding the vaccine debate mirror other forms of contemporary politics: A parent’s right to decide what’s best for his or her child versus doing what’s best for the community. Medical experts featured on the show explained that an irony may have sparked the debate: Vaccines were so effective at ridding the country of serious diseases (pertussis, chicken pox, polio) that younger parents and adults haven’t seen or heard about these diseases for years (If anyone’s doubting chicken pox, I still have scars from my infection as a kid). Much like the core issue of autism, when people don’t get firsthand exposure or information, the atmosphere is ripe for doubt or skepticism about the existence of such diseases. The result? A potential for a return of diseases once believed to be eradicated from the United States, such as a measles outbreak in San Diego that was quelled before it swelled.

When Frontline examined autism’s role in the vaccine controversy, they reported information that I already knew either through articles or previous blog posts here. For the sake of the community, they had to. The documentary did provide more detailed reports on the major studies that refuted a vaccine-autism link and looked into why the anti-vaccine movement is gaining steam. The conclusion? New media, which includes the very site I’m using to analyze the program, has created a vast amount of hype and misinformation that counters the dry, factual presentation of professional sites all too well. Personal anecdotes presented at rallies are often more emotionally charged, and are more likely to connect with the public than facts are. Jenny McCarthy is featured in this program, mixed with clips of a speech she gave at a rally protesting the high amount of vaccines given to children at a young age. The problem is compounded when you factor general polls that continue to highlight the public’s lack of trust with government and the increasing fragmentation of media that allows people to align themselves with outlets that match their own beliefs.

You know an issue is serious when the controversy is given the Frontline treatment. Although PBS doesn’t show up on the Nielsen ratings with the other networks, Frontline remains a solid barometer of what is affecting us in the present. Ironically, the new media that fragments our population also gives PBS a way to include extended interviews and reports on the topics discussed during an episode. The show may not be influential enough to completely shift current debates about autism regarding vaccines, but it presents us with an explanation of why the current environment exists. Sometimes understanding why is all that’s needed to move forward.

This marks the first time that Frontline has explored any facet of autism, and “The Vaccine War” could easily be a springboard that takes a closer look at the disability should PBS and WGBH decide to pursue it. Unfortunately, I’m not sure that the primary segments of the audience who should watch this program actually will. PBS doesn’t take sides, but anti-vaccine groups may believe the documentary throws a few punches at their opinions while touting the importance of stopping preventable diseases. The pro-vaccine side also stands to benefit since web pages aren’t enough anymore to provide information. Facts are nice, but if they’re not presented in an engaging form, web surfers will find another place to navigate. Frontline usually mixes factual and personal stories well, and the vaccine episode may provide a base for future researchers, reporters and documentary makers to find the next phase of autism and other issues where immunizations are involved.

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  1. […] PBS examined the movement two years ago through their documentary series Frontline, revealing another reason for the current mentality about vaccines. Because immunizations were highly effective at eradicating crippling diseases, generations of humans in developed countries have lived with only second-hand knowledge of contaminants like chicken pox, pertussis, and polio (the disease that paralyzed former President Franklin Delano Roosevelt). The long absence led to an increase of skepticism about older diseases, allowing for them to return, including a small measles outbreak in San Diego, Ca. […]


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