Aug 09 2007

Good Media, Bad Media, and the Vaccine-Autism Controversy

The prominent British magazine, the Observer, on July 8th published a front page story called “New Health Fears over Big Surge in Autism.” (At this time I cannot find an active link to the original article.) The article was a terrible piece of journalism. The headline is clear fear-mongering. The bottom-line message of the article was that the final results of a new study show that autism rates in the UK are 1 in 58 and that experts are concerned that there may be a link to the MMR vaccine.

It turns out that the study is not final – the results have yet to be analyzed. It further turns out that the director of the study, Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, does not think there is a surge in autism (he agrees with the consensus opinion that apparent increases in autism are due to increased diagnostic efforts and an expanding definition) nor that there is any link to the MMR vaccine. One “expert” quoted in the study is not an expert but an activist, and the other was misrepresented and does not think there is a link.

This is terrible journalism bordering on malfeasance, given that false fears over the risks of the MMR vaccine historically lead to decreased compliance with the vaccine and subsequent increases in morbidity and mortality from the diseases they prevent. The Observer seems unrepentant. In their “clarification” published a week later they just made a lame attempt at excusing their journalistic deficiencies.

On the flip side, Ben Goldacre wrote for his Bad Science column in the Guardian a scathing review of the original Observer article. Goldacre did what a good journalist should do, he followed up on critical details and he did the research necessary to put the story in its proper context.

Unfortunately, clearing up the mess after the fact often does little to mitigate the damage caused by the original misinformation. The Observer has played their role in propagating a harmful myth and they did it for cheap scaremongering headlines. Shame on them.

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