The Autistic Journalist

Using words to explain the mind

Posts Tagged ‘AOL News

Wakefield remains firm about “fraudulent” study

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Photo by Steve Parsons, PA Wire

The discovery of “doctored information” on Andrew Wakefield’s discredited study linking vaccinations to autism has generated a lot of publicity and fuel for news outlets, and little time was wasted in pursuing the major angles involving this week’s development.

Although evidence refuting a link continues to grow, support for Wakefield and his study in question has yet to shrink. An independent survey reported 58.3% of respondents dissatisfied with research investigating a relationship conducted and/or funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (which may stem from a general distrust in government, as Congress has had dismal approval ratings for years while conspiracy theories remain abundant). 90% of those surveyed want to see studies comparing vaccinated and unvaccinated people to see if there’s a difference (Frontline addressed this issue with The Vaccine War last year). Wakefield still supports his study, first published in 1998.

Jenny McCarthy’s organization, Generation Rescue, claimed the media was mischaracterizing Wakefield’s work. McCarthy was quoted on The Vaccine War saying she’d rather risk her child getting mumps than autism and is a strong supporter of reducing the number of vaccinations a child receives.

Most who follow and/or studied media will tell you that media’s a popular target when news is reported that contradicts an argument for a sensitive topic. Media’s fluidity and the rapid pace news spreads certainly contribute in the present, but “blaming the media” existed as far back as Senator Joe McCarthy’s “witch hunt” of the 1950s, when he accused Edward R. Murrow of supporting Communists after Murrow published several reports with CBS on McCarthy’s activities.

Jenny, while not related to the late U.S. Senator, isn’t any more immune to blowback than Joe was. The Generation Rescue statement has Twitter users taking a swipe at Jenny for a perceived lack in parenting skills. And we’re only through the first week of 2011. Imagine what the next 51 could bring to this debate.

While the developments are new, the story itself hasn’t changed. In effect, AOL News considered Deer’s research that led to his suggestion of Wakefield’s study being fraudulent represented one side of the argument; that his research is invalid because of “tainted evidence.” While I doubt any reporter would be accused of bias simply for running that story, AOL News deemed interviewing the flip side of the debate, where belief that vaccinations are responsible for causing autism, worthwhile. Deborah Huso’s article effectively illustrates what I explained yesterday about two sides of an argument always attempting to one-up each other, resulting in a never-ending debate. The other factor, of course, remains the lack of a concrete detection method. Until that day comes, the cycle of latching on to a theory that appears to make sense will continue.

The most intriguing element in the vaccine debate’s latest chapter is the response toward Wakefield’s supporters. While a continuously present stream of thoughts exist on Twitter due to its nature, this is the first time I’ve seen social media used in a news story related to Deer’s investigation. While it’s technically impossible to gauge why McCarthy is taking a Twitter assault, consumers are known to grow weary over denials in the face of indisputable evidence or even an association to the contrary. Although it’s illogical to judge parenting skills based on one element of being a parent, that won’t stop opinions from being expressed online, and that in itself could indicate public perception of a controversial topic.

Deer’s discovery and reaction won’t be the last chapter in the vaccine debate. In fact, the recent news has already made a local impact in the Twin Cities area (my “home base”), and I’ll examine how they approached the fraudulent data claim in my next post. Until then, expect the patterns I’ve detailed in this post to persist when a future development is published about the refuted link between autisms and immunizations.

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Parents respond to murderous mother

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Courtesy Irving Police/AP

On the blogosphere and TV, parents are offering insight as to why Saiqa Akhter snapped and killed her two autistic children because she wanted “normal kids,” according to a 911 call where she confessed to the murders. However, none of them are excusing her actions.

The consensus was Akhter went that far because she didn’t have a support network to help raise her kids with a disability that sometimes leaves autistic people stuck with the behaviors of a toddler. The trials of raising autistic people are no secret if you’ve even remotely followed coverage. Raising children period is a challenge with all the variables out there. Akhter’s family said she suffered from depression and other mental illnesses. Whether that can be verified or not is unclear, and we won’t know if a support network would have prevented Akhter from killing her kids either. What we do learn based on the aggregate of responses is parenting can be a frustrating and lonely experience when autism is added to the equation because a lack of understanding still remains in mainstream society.

The power of social media is clear, as it has been for several years. While user-generated content is criticized for accelerating political fragmentation and filling the Internet with nothing but clutter, it’s also useful for giving anyone surfing the web insight to things that would otherwise be unobtainable. While I recommend caution about user-generated content because such information could be tainted by personal opinions or lack of evidence, they can include resources to assist others.

Whatever the blogosphere holds, it’s clear many are breaking down the Akhter case, which could be a useful learning tool for people inside the autism community and reporters looking for insights to cover.

Written by TheSportsBrain

August 3, 2010 at 10:25 am

Computer program could detect signals of autism

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Before Saiqa Akhter dominated autism headlines this week, science produced news that could assist developing an objective form to detect autism, marking the second time this year I’ve come across an article that discovers new possibilities.

The first brought forth the theory of using urine tests to diagnose autism. This time, scientists say they’ve designed a computer program that can distinguish speech patterns between autistic and normal children, correctly identifying more than 85% of its subjects. Scientists working on the study discovered that autistic children mangled their syllables for much longer than non-autistic children, making a diagnosis easy for the computer program. However, those involved in the study recommend caution: the lead researcher doesn’t believe the program should be the sole measurement in determining who is autistic.

The article may be another sign of an incoming phase in autism coverage. A CNN article a few years back highlighted the primary problem of no objective method of diagnosing autism. A couple years back, ABC News reported a study that found certain genes in an autistic person’s DNA lie dormant. With two discoveries this year, it’s clear there’s a focus at finding something that will make autism diagnoses foolproof (there’s some skepticism at the rapid increase in autism diagnosis rates). While the Internet posts its share of contemporary issues, the medium is also proving its use at publishing articles paving new paths for the autism community, and it goes well beyond Google searches. Home pages of various e-mail and Internet service providers have a page that features major news stories at the moment, much like the front page of local and national newspapers did before the delivery of news rapidly increased speed. Because these sites update their top stories every few hours, topics ignored by other outlets have a place to carry their information.

It would be a safe bet to suggest more objective methods of looking for autism in children will appear, although how coverage will branch after that is unknown. Reporters may choose to focus on how soon objective tests will be put in place, others may weigh pros and cons against the status quo, and there may be a chance of hearing stories about psychologists’ appointments dropping because their services will no longer be required to provide an autism diagnosis. Of course, they will still be needed to help manage autistic people’s behaviors. In any case, expect computers to be at the forefront in finding an indisputable form of detection.

Written by TheSportsBrain

July 23, 2010 at 11:39 pm