By Anne Dachel
May 1, 2013, the Columbia Journalism Review published the story, Sticking with the truth --How 'balanced' coverage helped sustain the bogus claim that childhood vaccines can cause autism by Curtis Brainard
From the title of the article, it was clear that Brainard was on the attack against those who would give equal coverage to the idea that vaccines can cause autism. He criticized the 1998 Lancet article by Andrew Wakefield because it added to parents' fears about vaccines and autism. Brainard also said that the increase in the number of vaccines in the childhood schedule and the stunning increase in autism was "only coincidental."
According to Brainard, media sources covering the controversy were "squandering journalistic resources on a bogus story." And not only that, "there is evidence that fear of a link between vaccines and autism, stoked by press coverage, caused some parents to either delay vaccinations for their children or decline them altogether."
What seemed most disturbing to Brainard was the fact that this subject just won't go away. "Those who never bought the vaccine-autism link-in the press and elsewhere-have been waiting for the proverbial nail in the coffin on this story for years, and it never seems to come." It's clear to him that the reason this nagging theory is still around has to got be because the media continues to cover it.
"'Concern about adverse events, particularly related to media reports of a putative association between vaccinations and autism and of the dangers of thimerosal, appeared to play a major role in the decision of these families to decline vaccination,' according to a 2006 study published in The New England Journal of Medicine."
Brainard seemed baffled that the public continues to doubt the safety claims. "Major reports from the Institute of Medicine...in 2001 and 2004, rejected the link and drew a lot of coverage, but the level of concern among the public remained on the rise."
The reason why the controversy lingers on must be because the press keeps bringing it up. Brainard cited Robert Kennedy Jr's Deadly Immunity along with other examples. He was especially upset by what David Kirby and Dan Olmsted have written.
"But it was the work of two veteran journalists, not Kennedy's shameful piece, that really kept the story simmering. In February 2005, St. Martin's Press published Evidence of Harm by journalist David Kirby, in which Kirby didn't reach any specific conclusions about a link but presented a litany of parental suspicions that suggested one. And that winter, Dan Olmsted, a senior editor at United Press International, turned out a series called 'Age of Autism,' for which he conducted an admittedly unscientific survey that found lower autism rates among ostensibly unvaccinated Amish communities."
Members of Congress have been convinced to look into the link and notables like Jenny McCarthy have hopped on the anti-vaccine bandwagon, according to Brainard.
Brainard believes that the time has come to end balanced coverage on the question of vaccines and autism. In his view, objectivity has no place in stories where "the preponderance of evidence is on one side of a 'debate.'"
Brainard continued, "In such cases, 'balanced' coverage can be irresponsible, because it suggests a controversy where none really exists."
Next he made what to me was a stunning comment: "A follow-up study by Clarke and Graham Dixon, published in November 2012, makes this point. The two scholars assigned 320 undergrads to read either a 'balanced' article or one that was one-sided for or against a link between vaccines and autism. Those students who read the 'balanced' articles were far more likely to believe that a link existed than those who read articles that said no link exits."
Brainard also brought up the 2011 PBS series produced by veteran newsman, Robert MacNeil, called simply, "Autism Now," and he chastised MacNeil for allowing his daughter, Alison, to make the claim that vaccines caused her son's autism while at the same time, MacNeil reminded viewers that the scientific community didn't agree.
The story ended with Brainard citing the latest official study on vaccine safety which didn't receive a lot of media coverage. He said he fears that the press may be growing wary of this topic. They shouldn't be because according to Brainard, there may be rare but real safety concerns involving vaccines---just not a link to autism.
After reading this, I looked at the mission statement for his publication
"Columbia Journalism Review's mission is to encourage excellence in journalism in the service of a free society. Founded in 1961 under the auspices of Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism, CJR monitors and supports the press as it works across all platforms, and also tracks the ongoing evolution of the media business. The magazine, offering a mix of reporting, analysis, and commentary, is published six times a year; CJR.org weighs in daily, hosting a conversation that is open to all who share a commitment to high journalistic standards in the US and around the world."
Do those high journalistic standards include blindly trusting health officials and medical journals? Did Brainard ever once consider that citing studies and claims from the agency that runs the vaccine program isn't real proof of anything? Was Brainard aware that hundreds of individuals at the CDC have conflict of interest waivers because they have financial ties to the vaccine makers? Did he know that the last head of the CDC, Dr. Julie Gerberding, a longtime denier of any link, is now the head of the vaccine division at Merck?
Didn't it tell Brainard something that when undergrads heard arguments on both sides of the vaccine-autism debate, they were more likely to believe there is a link?
Brainard needs to ask himself why study after official study showing no association between vaccines and autism have not been able to settle the question.
Brainard attacked David Kirby and Dan Olmsted and cited their writing but didn't say he'd actually read either Evidence of Harm or The Age of Autism. And I wondered if he's ever looked at Wakefield's book, Callous Disregard.
Brainard talked about the MMR vaccine and thimerosal-containing ones but made no mention of the fact that there were never adequate trials of the combined MMR vaccine and no studies were ever done on thimerosal before it was allowed in vaccines.
He didn't bring up the fact that the British government indemnified the manufacturer of the MMR vaccine and therefore it's the government that would be liable for damage resulting from this vaccine if a link were clearly recognized.
In his selective coverage, nothing was said about Hannah Poling, the Georgia girl whose vaccine-autism injury case was conceded by medical experts from NIH nor did we hear about the dozens of other vaccine injury cases involving autism that were compensated by the federal Vaccine Court and covered in "Mixed Signals" on HDNet TV .
Brainard must not have heard that the late Dr. Bernadine Healy, former head of the National Institutes of Health, was on CBS News in 2008 http://www.cbsnews.com/video/watch/?id=4088138n where she announced that the vaccine-autism question was still open. She said we need to look at the children who got sick, the ones who were thriving and happy but who suddenly and inexplicably regressed into autism following routine vaccination. Five years later, that still hasn't been done.
Brainard was critical of the fact that Robert MacNeil allowed his daughter to claim vaccines cause autism. (He might be interested in the fact that Bob Wright, co-founder of Autism Speaks, testified at a U.S. House hearing in November, 2012 and stated his daughter Katie believes vaccines had caused her son's autism too.) Brainard didn't tell readers that MacNeil also interviewed Dr. David Amaral from the MIND Institute at UC-Davis during the "Autism Now" series.
When asked about vaccines and autism, Amaral said, "If the child had a precondition, like a mitochondrial defect, vaccinations for those children actually may be the environmental factor that tipped them over the edge of autism. And I think it is incredibly important, still, to try and figure out what, if any, vulnerabilities, in a small subset of children, might make them at risk for having certain vaccinations. . . . And I frankly don't think that there's going to be a large group of children that their autism is caused by their standard immunizations. But you know, it could be a small subset."
I guess it's easier to dismiss something said by Alison MacNeil than by a nationally recognized autism expert like David Amaral.
Brainard told us all about the government's studies on their vaccine program without noting that there's never been one done on the cumulative effect of the ever-expanding number of vaccines in the childhood schedule.
At the beginning of the article, Brainard cited an autism rate of one in 88 children, not the recent updated rate of one in every 50 children. No matter, there was no concern over the stunning statistic nor any acknowledgement that officially there's no known cause or cure for autism and that there's nothing a mainstream doctor can tell a new mother so that her child that was born healthy and is developing normally won't also end up on the autism spectrum by age two.
I've monitored how the press covers autism for over ten years and almost nothing has changed. No matter how bad the numbers get, how clueless officials are or how much science disproves it, THERE IS NO LINK.
Brainard thinks that the coverage has been too balanced? In truth, we've never had real fair and balanced coverage of this issue. We never hear about the independent researchers raising serious concerns over vaccine safety or about the more than 200 studies that they've produced. I've personally seen hundreds of times where the press failed to cover this issue honestly and thoroughly from both sides Because reporters are gullible, ignorant, conflicted, frightened, or just plain lazy, we've not been told the truth about what vaccines are doing to our children.
What's really missing in articles like Brainard's is anything about autism. I wonder if he's ever talked to a parent with an autistic child, and I mean a severely affected child. They're everywhere. It wouldn't be hard to find some. Talk to parents who personally witnessed their beautiful, perfect babies turn into sick sick children. Talk to parents who took their kids in for routine vaccinations and watched in horror as they stopped talking, starting seizing, head banging, and screaming endlessly. He should listen to stories about toddlers who developed none-stop diarrhea after being vaccinated. Talk to parents who have locks on every door and window because their children might escape and be killed in traffic. Talk to parents who've been forced to put their teenage children in group homes because they simply can't handle them at home any longer. Talk to the parents who are scared to death about what will happen when they're no longer here to care for their autistic children.
If he needs names, I have plenty of them from all over the country.
And if Brainard thinks this issue is hot now, he should know that a bill has been introduced in Congress calling for a comparison of fully vaccinated and never vaccinated children to see if they have the same autism rate.
"United States Congressman Bill Posey of Florida is taking the step of introducing a bill requiring the study of vaccinated versus unvaccinated children . Along with his colleague Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY), Congressman Posey introduced H.R. 1757, The Vaccine Safety Study Act which would direct the National Institutes of Health to conduct a retrospective study of health outcomes, including autism, of vaccinated versus unvaccinated children."
This is the same Congressman Posey who during the congressional hearing last Nov. tried to find out from Dr. Coleen Boyle of the Centers for Disease Control why they'd never done such a study.
With so many parents now too frightened to vaccinate, the study group is out there. IF one in every 50 never vaccinated children also has autism, the debate is over. Clearly it would show there is no link.
Health officials have refused to call for this research. We should all be asking why. Curtis Brainard should ask why it's never been done.
(MIT also cited Brainard's article in the piece, How the Media Fed the Anti-Vaccine Movement , by Deborah Blum on May 8, 2013. She praised Brainard's work and warned about "the problem of false balance in science reporting." False balance? What's that? It sounds like a code phrase for not covering both sides if it would mean that lots of people would be held responsible for complete oversight failure.)
It seems our institutions of higher learning are teaching journalism students that they're never to think for themselves, never to question official claims and never to honestly investigate controversial topics because what they might discover could shake the nation.
Anne Dachel is Media Editor for Age of Autism.