The Autistic Journalist

Using words to explain the mind

Posts Tagged ‘vaccinations

In face of ridicule, Wakefield fights for his theory

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Photo by Shaun Curry, Getty Images

The start to the 2011 calendar year was rocky for Andrew Wakefield, whose study was declared false by British journalist Brian Deer, who published several stories in the British Medical Journal highlighting Wakefield’s alleged false claims and unethical practices. Deer compared Wakefield, who lost his medical license after his study linking M.M.R. vaccines to autism was retracted last year from the medical journal Lancet, to a religious leader who occasionally uses the smoke and mirrors technique to goose the faith of his followers.

Deer’s investigation was one of many facets spilled out in an article by Susan Dominus for The New York Times Magazine, a longhand form of the country’s most recognizable newspaper. As with any form of magazine writing, the stories take on the form of novels and are more descriptive, too descriptive for me to summarize in shorthand form. That’s no reason to turn away though, as Dominus provides an insight on Wakefield no American reporter has offered before. Through her journey interviewing and shadowing Wakefield, we learn that Wakefield himself didn’t claim proof that M.M.R. vaccines were causing autism, but that didn’t stop his concerns from spreading worldwide the same way viruses spread through the body until its defense mechanisms can suppress it. If recent media coverage is any indication, Wakefield became one of the most reviled doctors of his generation, receiving blame for starting a panic that led to the resurgence of diseases long squashed by vaccinations.

Despite the wave of damning evidence which has led him to close himself professionally, he still draws followers, as 250 attended a discussion he conducted regarding his work. His supporters view him a hero when nearly everyone else paints him as a villain. Wakefield himself believes public health officials and pharmaceutical companies pay bloggers to post vicious material about him. Throughout the story, Dominus compliments Wakefield’s persuasive skills, even when the audience knows better. Wakefield continues to fight and promote his theory, with Dominus adding that the more he has sacrificed (he resigned from London’s Royal Free Hospital following his publicized concerns and now lives in Austin, Texas), the more he must believe in his theory, or all efforts will be rendered useless. Ironically, medical experts suggest aggressive studying of the M.M.R. vaccine following Wakefield’s 1998 media splash means the vaccine is one factor than can be ruled out in a disability still shrouded by mystery.

Dominus assures the readers that she isn’t necessarily siding in Wakefield’s camp, but she does give him an opportunity to present his case as other reporters who interview Wakefield quickly write him off as a discredited liar. By not falling into the dramatic trap that can detract storytelling from other outlets, readers of this story see why Wakefield continues his battle for reputation with his supporters waiting in the wings to back him up. We even learn a few personal anecdotes about his life before gaining his notorious status in Great Britain and most of the United States.

In order to obtain the behaviors, characteristics and traits Dominus lists regarding Wakefield, interviewing goes well beyond the simple press conference or brief one-on-one interview. Traveling with the source and immersing in the source’s comfort zone is common, and more relationship skills are needed to ensure you get the story requested in your assignment. In the case of Wakefield, encountering Dominus and her approach may have been more comforting since she offered a value other reporters decided to box away, even though she was no less neutral than shorthand writers covering the Wakefield saga. Ultimately, Dominus reveals the basis of Wakefield’s support comes from parents seeking answers who credit him or his associates for trying a possible solution, even if the strategy is cautioned by others (including casein and gluten-free diets, a media craze for a short time).

Magazine-style writing allows writers like Dominus to include more details and examine many subtopics of a story that traditional news articles can’t provide because of space or time constraints. Her observations may not remove Wakefield’s “villainous figure” in the eyes of the medical community, but just as the Marvel Comics movies emphasize human elements within their villains, Dominus’ story leaves Wakefield less clear-cut than previous mainstream glimpses portrayed him.

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100 stories for autism surveyors

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Traffic to The Autistic Journalist has skyrocketed once more after I returned from my three-month hiatus, and thanks to your support and the constant stream of articles I find, you are currently reading my 100th post since I activated the site in January 2009. The journey of archiving and analyzing how journalists report on the autism spectrum has allowed me to examine autism and reference what I’m discussing instead of simply going off my own observations. Since my first post, this site has recorded more than 12,000 visits and two syndications with Autisable and Disability Resource Exchange. I’m grateful for this outreach so far, but I doubt they will be the only ways of spreading my message.

Speaking of messages, two surveys whose results were published in the May issue of Pediatrics and picked up by U.S. News and World Report found that 93 percent of parents who participated had or were going to get all recommended vaccines for their children, while 76 percent said they trusted their doctors a lot. However, 24 percent of respondents said they placed trust in what celebrities say about vaccinations, which segued to autism activist Jenny McCarthy, who is known among the autism community for her opposition to vaccinations despite numerous studies refuting a link and the official retraction of the study that initiated the controversy (some of those stories are featured on this very site).

Dr. Gary Freed, one study author who is also the director of the child health evaluation and research unit at the University of Michigan, cautioned giving too much credit to celebrities who may not share the same background as researchers do. Freed was quoted saying there is a danger in the media of putting up celebrities as experts for any topic they have an opinion on, even though they have no expertise in immunizations or infectious diseases.

The second survey highlights a second obstacle that was explored by PBS’ Frontline documentary on vaccinations last year. 22 percent of those respondents said they were concerned about their child receiving too many vaccinations and the potential for damage to a child’s immune system (some vaccines, including flu shots, will use dead cells of the virus for the body’s immune system to absorb, allowing cells to fight off active versions of those viruses). Freed said that even if parents feel uneasy about their child getting poked often and early, that shouldn’t dissuade the notion of staying on schedule with vaccinations since many diseases they protect can be lethal for children and cause outbreaks for everyone else; Minnesota has been fighting a measles outbreak in recent weeks.

Jenifer Goodwin, the reporter who published the U.S. News study, faced a difficult proposition by covering two studies based on survey questions. One can be tricky enough for the audience to consume, as many stories that report poll figures will throw out a lot of statistics. Goodwin found an effective way to include both by finding one of the study authors and a second researcher who specializes in pediatric care for infectious diseases to spell out what the numbers mean. Not all writers do this when they recap poll numbers. Goodwin used her lead to highlight the biggest finding from the surveys, the overwhelming majority of parents who will follow the recommended vaccination schedule for their children, and quickly tied that to the ongoing controversy of the vaccine-autism link.

Some readers will read the first few paragraphs and then skim through the rest of the story, which is why print writers often employ the strategy Goodwin executes in her piece: the inverted pyramid. The inverted pyramid promotes placing the most important details of a story first, then include relevant but less necessary data in later paragraphs. While the web and various forms of blogging means writers don’t have to be as rigid with the format, the inverted pyramid remains a common form of print journalism and won’t stop being taught in workshops and classes that teach the craft.

Regarding the surveys, my biggest curiosity was the story reporting women and Hispanics being more likely to trust celebrities of the 24 percent that said they trusted them for vaccine information. Women cover just over half of the population and will have many backgrounds in their family lineage, while Hispanics are a growing segment of the American population that doesn’t rule out men believing what celebrities have to say. To gauge why the two responded the way they did would require a psychological expertise I don’t have, but we do see women more often for autism stories than men when it comes to the personal experience. Even the article from my last post on Holly Robinson-Peete spent the entire duration on her efforts, even though she and her husband are both involved in autism awareness. I’ve heard anecdotal suggestions that women are more enticing for autism stories because of their increased likelihood to display more volatility with emotional output, while men continue to live with the assumption they must be “tough guys.” Nothing is linear, of course, and families, researches, and other caretakers familiar with autism are well aware that support isn’t limited to the female gender.

There is potential for a follow-up story with the Hispanic community and autism (which would require a more complete perspective than their belief in celebrities), but I doubt the same regarding women, since that would leave many stations and papers in a state of self-critical research, and they’re not keen to highlighting trends they either caused or promoted that may not be beneficial for journalism itself.

Goodwin’s ability to guide us through two polls and not overwhelm us with numbers allows readers to feed off its notes, and also continues to suggest that the public is either growing tired of the vaccine-autism debate when evidence is clearly one-sided, taking more initiative to learn about all facets of autism, or both. Autism may not exist without a controversy for several years, but signs suggest the most visible issue in the last five years is slowly fading.

Autism no fraud, but controversial study declared false

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Autism’s biggest firestorm refuses to cede its flames, as The Associated Press reports an analysis of the now-discredited study linking vaccines to autism published by Andrew Wakefield was based on doctored information on how the children were involved.

Brian Deer, a British journalist who made the discovery, learned that five of the 12 children in Wakefield’s study had documented developmental problems prior to receiving an MMR vaccine, which Wakefield claimed was the cause of autism in children and led to panic among parents of autistic children. Deer also noticed that all cases were misrepresented after comparing data from the children’s medical records and their parents.

As you may have guessed, a huge reaction among the autism community has erupted following the report. Wakefield’s dishonesty ruling last year, from the General Medical Council, was the first bombshell that brought pause to the belief of a link between vaccines and autism. In fact, 2010 was a significant year in terms of addressing the controversy with vaccine safety. While the study is no longer considered credible, immunization rates for measles, mumps and rubella haven’t fully recovered from their lows of the late 1990s, and outbreaks of diseases once thought to be eradicated have cropped up where immunization rates decreased.

However, this scientific debate persists because of emotionally charged reactions from both sides as they attempt to one-up each other to prove their argument is more valid. Fear of the unknown remains a powerful catalyst as humans often worry about things not necessarily within their control, which is one reason why this debate remains autism’s spotlight controversy. Naturally, it’s a perfect story for reporters to follow up because its energy level remains high. I’ll discuss one story that gauges the reaction from supporters of Wakefield’s study tomorrow.

By the way, you’ve just read my first blog post of 2011. After taking a hiatus to focus on other assignments, I’ve returned to continue discussing autism in the news and what it means for the news. 2010 was a big year for the Autistic Journalist, where daily hits increased from 4 in 2009 to 20 in 2010. For you mathematicians, that’s a 400% increase. Yeah, not much, but increased syndication in 2010 helped spread the word about The Autistic Journalist, and I want to thank readers for their continued support. I’m no expert, but I will not rest in my goal to go beyond the surface in exploring autism and its news coverage. 2011 will be an even bigger ride than 2010.

Here’s Jenny…again!

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Photo courtesy of Cookie Magazine

Photo courtesy of Cookie Magazine

There’s a good chance you heard something out of former Playboy model Jenny McCarthy’s mouth if you’ve even remotely followed anything about autism. While I definitely don’t read too many entertainment articles (I find them to lack substance), but recalling her position on autism’s most controversial subject, I wanted to see what she had to say for the August issue of Cookie Magazine.

Cookie was nice enough to recap her story to this point in case any newcomers drop in. To make a long story short, her son Evan was diagnosed five years ago after suffering a life-threatening seizure and was originally diagnosed with epilepsy. McCarthy’s instinct thought otherwise, and Evan was diagnosed with autism soon after. McCarthy continues to voice concerns parents have about vaccinations causing autism. She joined the board for Generation Rescue last year, an organization calling for the elimination of toxic materials in vaccines and delaying shot schedules, suggesting they can overwhelm a child’s immune system. McCarthy isn’t completely against vaccines, suggesting that they work for some children, but not all. McCarthy also has Evan on a gluten-free diet, which means no wheat or dairy products.

McCarthy also referenced but didn’t really take a shot at fellow actress Amanda Peet for her comments about autisms and vaccines. You’ll find a link to Peet’s interview in the McCarthy article. Peet called parents who didn’t vaccinate their chidren parasites, and McCarthy said she was just like Peet prior to her son’s diagnosis.

Reading this continues to indicate McCarthy’s transition from her early days of Playboy and Singled Out to an activist for a disability that still hasn’t completely saturated the public. In fact, her former identity can prove to be an advantage if the notion is true that men will follow anyone who’s even remotely hot. It also helps to appear on Oprah.

Regarding her vaccination claims, I’m still skeptical as no concrete evidence has come forward to support the claim that autism is caused by materials used in vaccines while several major studies conclude the opposite. But without the skeptics, there’s no incentive to get the science right, so her views on the topic do not affect me. Based on what I’ve read, I have no doubts that her son is autistic. However, because of her son’s reaction to going gluten-free and reports coming out suggesting an increase of human intolerance to gluten and dairy products, whether it’s an actual disease (KARE 11 story) or allergic reaction (WCCO story), the evidence is there to make a theoretical argument that Evan may have an allergy to gluten or dairy products. I’m autistic too, but at 22, I still have yet to develop any food allergies. In fact, I’ll eat just about anything :-).

Overall, the profile story done by Cookie did reveal some things about McCarthy’s plans to ramp up her activism and told me a few things I didn’t know before. In journalism, that’s a sign of the reporter telling a good story.

Written by TheSportsBrain

August 9, 2009 at 5:52 pm