Offit challenges reporters to avoid false balance #ahcj14

Alan Scher Zagier

About Alan Scher Zagier

Alan Scher Zagier is a St. Louis-based independent journalist who came to Missouri on a one-year teaching appointment at the Mizzou School of Journalism and decided to stick around. He spent 11 years with The Associated Press and has worked as a newspaper editor and reporter in Florida and North Carolina. He is attending Health Journalism 2014 on an AHCJ-Missouri Health Journalism Fellowship, which is supported by the Missouri Foundation for Health.

Photo by Maggie Prude

Photo by Maggie Prude

Paul Offit, M.D., has had it with the journalistic canard of false balance as a reflexive stand-in for objectivity – and he’s not shy about taking health journalists to task for their contributions to what he calls a skewed public narrative on the dangers of vaccines.

“You tell two sides of the story when only one side is supported by science,” the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine pediatrics professor and scourge of anti-vaccine activists said at Saturday’s Health Journalism 2014 awards luncheon.

Offit singled out a Philadelphia television news station’s breathless report on a meningitis B vaccine offered to Princeton University students in response to a 2013 outbreak of a rare strain that was also found at the University of California-Santa Barbara. The report was entitled “Student Guinea Pigs?” and featured interviews with both Offit, chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases and director of the Vaccine Education Center at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia; and Sherri Tenpenny, D.O., a vaccine critic. The reporter frames Tenpenny’s sound-bite with the jarring qualifier that while she “doesn’t hate vaccines,” Tenpenny has doubts about the vaccine made available to Princeton students.

“We should hold ourselves to a higher standard,” Offit said, recounting how he challenged the news segment’s producer in a follow-up call to “be a little more careful next time when you choose your experts.”

He called the low adolescent participation rate for HPV vaccines to reduce the sexually transmitted disease “our biggest national embarrassment,” the product of an irrational public fear of science he said is giving the public pronouncements of celebrities such as Jenny McCarthy and Kristin Cavallari the same weight as respected NIH researchers.

“Why do we care what these people say? Why do we keep beating this drum?” he said. “It’s very easy to scare people. It’s harder to unscare them.”

Most in the audience responded favorably to Offit’s call to arms, even with Power Point slide titles such as “The media doesn’t understand science.” Less certain was Offit’s understanding of the difficulty in reporting on complex medical topics when time, space and resources are at a premium. When a broadcast journalist asked for some advice on avoiding the false balance of dueling sources on a tight deadline, he advised to simply not report the story rather than produce a flawed piece of reportage.

“If that’s the way it’s going to be done, then it’s likely to be done badly,” Offit said.

9 thoughts on “Offit challenges reporters to avoid false balance #ahcj14

  1. Beth Kitchin PhD RDN

    I applaud Dr. Offit for his bold “call to arms”. This is a huge problem in health journalism and too many journalists are not taking the time to educate themselves on evaluating scientific evidence. The fallacy of the opposite view as equal view is too often ignored.

  2. Frank Levey

    It is absolutely outrageous that offering another side to the vaccine issue be viewed as irresponsible. To continue the mantra that “Science is undivided in the safety and efficacy of vaccines” which the media seems almost totally willing to do, completely disregards the FACT that there are many good and valid reasons to question the mass innoculations we , especially children, are subjected to. As long as as there is no room for debate, and Dr. Offit (who happened to have made millions in his vaccine investments) shames anyone who even attempts to bring up another side, we will continue down this very questionable path. It is the job of the media to report both sides of an issue, especially when there are credible spokespersons, with very well documented studies, available to offer their side.

  3. Carol Brown, MD

    So Offit thinks the journalists are not capable to research health science.
    I think the journalists need to be BOLD and do their job, research and find the truth about any matter. Always question.

    Everybody has the right to express their opinion, beliefs and experiences. Why not about vaccines? When concerned parents educate themselves about vaccines or any medical matter and decide what is best for their children, why should they be vilified or ignored?
    Everybody has the right to know the truth. Unfortunately for many, the truth just come to them through the media. It’s the media’s job to look for it.

    When Offit asks ““Why do we care what these people say? “, he is really saying that what these people say affects how much money Merck and himself make selling vaccines. And they are concerned with the drop of the sales.
    He also means: “Why should we care what parents of vaccine-injured children have to say?” and “Why should we care about whoever gets injured by vaccines?”.
    And finally what he is saying means: “Let’s shut up the voices that speak up questioning vaccines, even if these voices are yours, journalists”.

    There is a growing body of evidence that links vaccines to autism. Just do your research and you will find it.
    Offit wants to scare the journalists, just like he wants to scare naive parents into buying the DOGMA that vaccines are safe and effective.

    Here is some scientific evidence about the damage that vaccines can cause: Autoimmune Inflammatory Syndrome Induced by Adjuvants (ASIA), a newly discovered autoimmune disease.

    Expert Rev Clin Immunol. 2013 Apr;9(4):361-73. doi: 10.1586/eci.13.2.
    Autoimmune/inflammatory syndrome induced by adjuvants (Shoenfeld’s syndrome): clinical and immunological spectrum.
    Vera-Lastra O1, Medina G, Cruz-Dominguez Mdel P, Jara LJ, Shoenfeld Y.
    The link is here: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23557271

  4. Heather White RT (R) CT

    Seems to me that Offit is becoming irrelevant. My son is vaccine injured and those of us who have had similar experiences are tired of being told to be quite. Our numbers are growing, we will continue to “beat the drum” as well.
    Peace!

  5. Krishna Murphy

    Dr. Offitt is nothing more than a pad shill for the pharmaceutical industry, parroting their talking points and avoiding the real science that has been done. That science conclusively shows that vaccines are extremely limited in effectiveness, and often cause damage which is not detectable at the time, showing up later as a seemingly unrelated incidence of bodily ills. Vaccines offer a very bad trade-off, current health for possible future illness prevention.

    As regards the journalism, he is incorrect in saying that Dr.Tenpenny was a poor choice of expert – she has engaged in over 20,000 hours of study on the subject, and her opinions based on that study are authoritative to an extent he has no hope of ever achieving. He is correct in his implication that judgement needs to be exercised in picking experts, and he himself is an example of someone who has very little to offer in terms of real authority; he doesn’t seem to have even read the package inserts, let alone the more exhaustive research regarding the effects of the toxins in the vaccines!

  6. Dr. Paul Kratka

    With many, many (… legions actually), of well educated, well informed professionals (i.e. those who read the scientific literature), and not-so well informed people (i.e. parents who haven’t necessarily read the literature but have had adverse personal family experiences), questioning a ‘policy’ based on ‘authoritative insistence’ versus sound science (not to mention risk vs. benefit analysis), it’s no wonder the authoritative camp is feeling a lack of respect.

    The problem is you have to earn respect, not demand it.

    With autism, allergies, asthma, autoimmune disease, developmental disorders, and cancers in children, all increasing in incidence and all coinciding with ramped-up vaccination schedules over the past 30 years, this issue is not going to be overlooked based on this position of ‘we know best because we’re wearing the white coats’.

    The neuro-immune toxicity of vaccinations is irrefutable – the research is clear on things such as post-vaccinal encephalitis and other adverse neurological and immune compromising effects.

    What’s causing so much consternation among doctors and drug companies is that social media is leveling the playing field by causing accountability and transparency with regard to critical analysis surrounding ‘accepted’ medical paradigms in conjunction with real life experiences; this in turn is disruptive to the established or accepted (entrenched?) policies and belief systems that don’t hold up under scrutiny.

  7. Jack

    “be a little more careful next time when you choose your experts.”, lol, what Offitt means is that the media should only use “experts” that will support his funded view that pharmaceutical “science” is not pseudo science.

  8. Adam

    Of course vaccines are safe and effective!! And they don’t cause ANY illness or damage at all!! That’s why there are warnings in the package insert of Guillane Barre Syndrome, paralysis, nerve damage, brain swelling, and endless documented accounts of leading vaccine researchers admitting their vaccines cause cancer (which they are now ‘grown’ in!!!)!!! And that’s why we need special courts to deal with those destroyed by this cultish medical fraud dreamt up by a 17th century farmer, where victims are compensated by taxpayers, and manufacturers are shield from liability for the people they annihilate!! Yay, vaccines are such a good idea, YOU MUST BE FORCED AT GUNPOINT TO SUBJECT YOURSELF TO THEM, SLAVES. NO SHUT UP AND DIE AS YOU ARE TOLD.

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