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Tsouderos LA Times Lyme Disease Reporting Questioned by Knight Science Journalism Tracker

Posted Jan 10 2011 12:00am

Acks Knight Science Journalism Tracker reviews science-based journalism. Trine Tsouderos and her partner Patricia Callahan had their Lyme Disease  (HERE) writing critiqued by Paul Raeburn. Ms. Tsouderos took a similar no holds barred approach with autism treatment. She was a food editor writing about cupcakes before she landed the science beat. This report is the icing on the cake, isn't it? If her name sounds familiar, Paul Offit thanks her for her bravery in reporting in his acknowledgments.

From   KSJ Tracker HERE
This is what happens when reporters make up their minds about a controversial story before beginning to write. In a Dec. 8 Chicago Tribune piece on Lyme disease, reporters Patricia Callahan and Trine Tsouderos write that while Lyme disease is real, so-called “chronic” Lyme disease, said to last for years, “is an illness that might not even exist.”

That’s an arguable point, and a fair conclusion to come to–if the writers came to it fairly. Cupcake cop   But they follow that by saying, without attribution, that we live “in a golden age of dubious medicine,” and that “advocates can raise big money to ‘Unmask A Cure’ for a disease that already has a cure, and doctors disciplined by medical boards are held up as heroes.”

Then this:

Fueled by suspicion of doctors and drug companies, Americans are flocking to alternative healers promoting risky treatments and unproven cures. The Internet connects pseudoscientists with the desperately ill, trumpets I’ve-been-cured testimonials and often dismisses the results of clinical trials as the work of unsympathetic doctors corrupted by Big Pharma money.

Google “ALS” and “treatment” and results include a site touting deer antler therapy for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. Google “cancer” and “alternative treatments” and you’ll find a “grape cure,” among others. Message boards are packed with patients trading treatments, often including detailed prescription information.

It goes on. Note that none of this is attributed. The reporters are saying, in their own voice, that chronic Lyme disease belongs squarely with all kinds of risky and unproven cures for cancer and other ailments. With that kind of opening, most readers don’t have to wade any further through the reporting to know what conclusions the story is going to come to. The writers have conveyed their sneering skepticism without, so far, more than a few shreds of reporting. And none from anybody we might consider an expert on the disease.

 

Indeed, experts are scarce in this 3,000-word story (the count is for the web version). Callahan and Tsouderos are likely going to send me an irritated note enumerating the experts they quoted in the story, but there aren’t many of them, and none of them is quoted at length addressing the legitimacy of chronic Lyme disease.

The reporters might point out that they quoted Allen Steere, the doctor who discovered Lyme disease. But does Steere say chronic Lyme disease is a phony diagnosis being treated by pseudoscientists with unproven cures? Here’s his quote:

“I don’t think of it as a mysterious disease that causes a lot of vague symptoms,” said Steere, a professor at Harvard Medical School who has spent decades studying Lyme disease and sat on two of the expert panels. “It doesn’t.”

It’s clear that Steere doesn’t buy Lyme disease as a cause of all kinds of seemingly unrelated symptoms. But his statement is far more measured than those of the reporters. Further, this is the entire quote. I was eager for a more extended report of Steere’s views of chronic Lyme, but this is all we get. Further still, the quote does not appear until 1,000 words into the story, after we’ve already heard about a doctor repeatedly disciplined for treating chronic Lyme, and from a woman who thinks Lyme disease was manufactured in a government lab. The reporters also quote a Robert Bradford, identified only–and unhelpfully–as the founder of the Robert Bradford Research Institute, who says chronic Lyme is the plague of the 21st Century and might be responsible for half of all cases of chronic illness.

Steere’s quote is set up with a paraphrase of the findings of two doctors’ organizations who concluded that “the diagnosis is suspect.” Again, this is far more measured than what the reporters are writing in their own voice.

They then quote chronic Lyme advocates at length before introducing another expert, Dr. Paul Lantos of Duke University, whose quote, in its entirety, is: “Why take needless risks with people’s lives?”

Again and again, Callahan and Tsouderos give far more space to advocates making questionable claims than they do to experts who refute those claims, allowing the serious case for chronic Lyme disease, whatever that might be, to be buried under the dubious claims of advocates.

The reporters go on and on impuguning patients and advocates without ever telling us whether there is a debate among legitimate experts about whether Lyme disease might assume a chronic form.

The reporters bolster their case that chronic Lyme disease doesn’t exist by noting further down that Bradford was convicted more than 30 years ago for conspiring “to smuggle a banned cancer treatment.” If Bradford is a crook, why do the reporters spend so much time reporting what he has to say? Why is he even in the story?

The writers give the last word to an activist whose rebuttal to one of the doctors’ groups that was skeptical of chronic Lyme disease is this: ‘”Infecting the committee members with Lyme sounds great because we are pissed off.”

Not exactly reasoned debate, eh?

In short, what Callahan and Tsouderos have done is to argue that chronic Lyme disease can’t exist because the people who say it does are nuts.

A far better approach would have been to report the evidence, pro and con, and to quote the most persuasive advocates for and against chronic Lyme disease–not the least persuasive. And to give both sides equal time to speak.

(Thanks for the heads-up to Pam Weintraub, features editor of Discover Magazine and author of Cure Unknown: Inside the Lyme Epidemic.)

 

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