In his latest dispatch, Salon.com contributor and pediatrician Rahul Parikih describes the media as the willing enablers of the decade of hysteria brought about by what he describes as “Dr. Andrew Wakefield’s now infamous study linking the MMR vaccine to autism.” Parikh starts by describing exactly how Wakefield artfully manipulated the media from the beginning:
The anti-vaccine hysteria, after all, began like so many other big stories: with a press conference. That’s where Andrew Wakefield first staked his claim that the MMR vaccine caused autism, according to Paul Offit’s book, “Autism’s False Prophets.” Wakefield wasn’t flanked by doctors or hospital officials but by P.R. folks he had hired himself. “One case of [autism] is too many,” he said. “It’s a moral issue for me, and I can’t support the continued use of [the MMR vaccine] until this issue has been resolved.”
The problem, of course, is that a news conference loads a gun that the media usually pulls the trigger on: Headlines like “Ban Three-in-One Jab, Doctors Urge” started rolling off the presses. While measles made a tragic resurgence, few reporters attempted to scrutinize Wakefield or his audacious claim.
Finger successfully pointed, Parikh then goes on to analyze, with the help of AHCJ member Gary Schwitzer, exactly how the media was duped. He finds that it comes down to the fact that science is pretty complicated stuff, while the news cycle is not.
Frankly, progress in science and medicine occurs much more slowly than the news cycle can tolerate. “Science,” says Schwitzer, “is like a slow winding stream. It has ebbs and flows, and twists and changes in its path that, if you don’t follow, can fool you. But too many reporters, unfortunately, like to dip their toe in the water, run back and report about it without following that river to where it leads.”
Parikh also blames the reporters’ technique of adding “balance” to a story by including opposing opinions that may come from discredited fringe elements, but adds that it’s not entirely the media’s fault.
The Lancet, one of the world’s most well-known medical publications, played an enormous role here, showing us how medical journals are at risk for their own kinds of malpractice. Offit’s “False Prophets” details how Richard Horton, then the journal’s editor in chief, seemed enamored of the notion of publishing something muckraking. As Offit writes, “By ignoring the criticisms of several reviewers, the warnings of an accompanying editorial, Wakefield’s history of holding press conferences, a British press primed for controversy, and a public distrustful of public health officials, Richard Horton allowed the public to question the safety of a vaccine based on flimsy, irreproducible data. The loss of the public trust that followed was entirely predictable.”
Parikh ends his piece on a positive note, praising Brian Deer’s investigations into Wakefield’s research in The Sunday Times (of London).