The Autistic Journalist

Using words to explain the mind

Posts Tagged ‘vaccines

New Wakefield ruling permeating local news

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Courtesy CBS

WCCO’s take on Brian Deer’s suggestion of doctored information in Andrew Wakefield’s study that concluded vaccines were a cause of autism illustrates the magnitude of the controversy. Whenever you see a local news source provide their own take on a national story, that generally means the subject is either well-known to the audience or there’s a serious need to inform the public about a potential mass impact.

For WCCO, CBS’ Twin Cities affiliate, they used the recent development to explore how Wakefield’s study impacted immunizations. WCCO talked with parents of twins who wanted to be sure they made the right choice when it came to vaccinating their kids. On a broad scope, they would certainly appear to be reporting “yesterday’s news” as they tell their viewers how Wakefield’s study caused parents to put more thought into all vaccines, not just the MMR shot in Wakefield’s research. For followers of autism in the news, this story doesn’t reveal much that isn’t already known: parents pausing to consider the “what if” questions out of concern for their children, and as I mentioned in my first post on the new development with Wakefield’s study, fear is a powerful catalyst in decision-making. Logic isn’t even enough to defeat the presence of fear. Ultimately, the parents WCCO interviewed decided to vaccinate their kids and no side-effects occurred, as they rarely do when immunizations are administered.

I’ve discussed why local news sometimes gives off a lackadaisical appearance with some of their topics of interest before, and some of those reasons return in WCCO’s latest autism story. Primarily, the news producers don’t believe their audience is fully aware of autism yet, as they re-iterate what autism does to its inhabitants and that no one knows what causes the disability. Given how short a window most video packages are (news code for a story generally 60 seconds or more covered by a reporter), there’s little time to explain the finer, more complex questions currently surrounding autism.

What we can learn from this story is how much attention local news producers are giving for, in this case, an international story. Few would question WCCO if they decided not to pursue a local angle to Deer’s discovery, since local TV news can’t focus on one topic for too long without risking losing audience interest. However, Wakefield’s study created huge implications, too big for most reporters to ignore. WCCO is simply doing what most of us affected by autism or worry about the disability already are, keeping an eye peeled for new leads, stories, developments and breakthroughs.

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.

Vaccine-autism debate injected with flames

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Courtesy John Spink, AP/Atlanta Journal-Constitution

The vaccine-autism debate may fire up once more after CBS News reported that the family of Hannah Poling, an autistic girl once at the center of the debate, will be awarded $1.5 million by the federal government for “injuries” related to her vaccinations. The government said vaccines aggravated an unknown mitochondrial disorder that didn’t cause autism, but resulted in it.

Poling was center stage a couple years ago when the federal government ruled vaccinations didn’t cause her conditions, but played a role. The ruling also aggravated the debate of whether vaccines were the culprit in autistic people. The ruling itself was actually a settlement originally declared in 2007 before the case went to trial, and the case was then sealed. Keep in mind, the ruling came down long before Dr. Andrew Wakefield’s study was ruled dishonest and unethical. Jenny McCarthy and then-boyfriend Jim Carrey were also involved in promoting vaccine safety, with McCarthy claiming vaccinations caused her son’s autism. Strange as it sounds to talk about events that happened only two years ago, there are many changes in how autism is approached on several fronts. I’ve documented several of them on this blog.

While chatter will likely increase as people are reminded about this story, the developments outside the Poling case create an interesting context. Without Wakefield’s ruling, this story might carry more force, despite CBS reporting that all other cases similar to Poling’s have been defeated at trial. A recent CNN story (which I’ll discuss in detail on a future blog) reported 18 studies after Wakefield’s findings were published that found no link between vaccines and autism. Mainstream news reports investigating the possible connection have essentially vanished since Wakefield’s ruling. However, it’s not uncommon for journalists to do follow-up stories on major events or people, and CBS was doing exactly that when it reported the settlement amount for Poling’s family. Although nearly 5,000 cases are awaiting disposition in federal vaccine court, I doubt we’ll get much coverage unless another ruling is made that supports the supposed link between autism and vaccines. News organizations stopped writing articles after coming across several studies that refuted a connection a couple years ago.

Choosing an amount of coverage for a news story is tricky, outside of major events like 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina. A skeptical audience plays a large impact on what gets reported. Go crazy and consumers will be annoyed and/or desensitized to the issue, as was the case with the heavy saturation of H1N1 stories in 2009. Go light and folks may question an organization’s values if they skimped a story the audience deems valuable (this includes celebrity gossip). The only constant is events, such as sports competitions, the State of the Union address and holidays.

While the impact of the Poling settlement may not carry as much force as it did two years ago, I doubt this will be the last time the vaccine-autism link is explored in journalism. There’s too much emotional electricity for the topic to short itself out.

Written by TheSportsBrain

September 10, 2010 at 10:34 am

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.

The ostriches are plentiful

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Jeff J. Mitchell, Getty Images

But their heads are well above the sand. A survey of over 1,500 parents conducted by the University of Michigan, in a story reported by the Associated Press, finds that 25% of those surveyed believe the now bogus connection between autism and vaccinations. However, the survey also found that 90% of respondents believe vaccinations are effective at preventing diseases in healthy children.

The survey was held last year, before the General Medical Council ruled Dr. Andrew Wakefield’s actions dishonest and unethical after a 1998 study suggested a link between autism and immunizations.

The article also reports doctors taking a tougher stance, asking parents who refuse vaccines to find another doctor. The survey is also a sign for doctors to design better ways to communicate how scientists reached a conclusion refuting vaccinations as a cause of autism to parents. Even Autism Speaks, not without its own controversies, encourages parents to vaccinate their children. The CDC reported measles outbreaks in five states in 2008 from unvaccinated school-age children.

The survey confirms what I speculated when word first broke out about Wakefield’s ruling and The Lancet‘s retraction of his study that spurred the hottest firestorm in the autism community. Correcting 12 years of false information will take just as long, if not longer, if history is any precedent (there was a 124-year waiting period before the United States granted women the right to vote and 189 years before the Civil Rights Act finally gave minorities equal rights under the law, although prejudice still exists). Surveys aren’t without faults, but the percentage of people believing the discredited theory is lower than I expected.

I’m up-to-date on all my vaccinations and the last time I checked, I’m still fully functional…wait a minute, I’m autistic. As soon as you find a cause for my case of autism spectrum disorder, send me an e-mail. Hopefully it will fall within my daily window of scheduled e-mail scans, which I maintain just as effectively as NBC does with its television audience 😀

What this also indicates is a lesson for anyone, including aspiring journalists when it comes to addressing controversies. Explain information as clearly as you can to your audience. You’ll be surprised at how many people believe untrue things simply because no one told them the right information. Communication is the reason print reporters, TV reporters and announcers often use simple words in their stories, because that saves us a boatload of time trying to define more complicated ones that you might see in scholarly work or the National Spelling Bee.

Written by TheSportsBrain

March 1, 2010 at 10:00 pm