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Getting to the truth when covering measles outbreak Date: 11/01/19


By Bara Vaida

A basic tenet in reporting is that there are two sides to a story, but in public health, that may not always be the case, says Melba Newsome, a Charlotte, N.C.-based freelance health care journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Times, O magazine, Time, and other publications.

Newsome was confronted with this challenge when writing an in-depth story for CQ Researcher on the recent measles outbreak, and the story behind how the contagious disease has made a come back in the era of modern medicine. A big piece of the story is the spread of misleading information by organizations that exploit people’s fears about vaccines, and the role the media played by giving these organizations a voice in an effort to provide balance, she says.

Reporters, she says, should be more focused on the scientific evidence that shows vaccines are safe and effective, rather than giving voice to fears. To read more about her thoughts and how she reported her story on measles, read the edited interview with Newsome:

Q: Why did you decide to write this story?

Melba Newsome: I thought writing about the return of the measles would be an interesting story because it crystalizes the impact of the anti-vaccine [movement] and puts it in real concrete terms for what we thought was happening [to public health.] What we thought had been eradicated, was back.

Q: What was the most striking thing that you learned while reporting on this story?

A: It crystalized the harm being done by the anti-vaccine movement. The point that I made is that I think it is just the canary in the coal mine in terms of [potential] disease outbreaks. Measles is the most infectious of these diseases. It is the first one that will show up [when there is a problem] and it portends future challenges for our health care system. Also, a lot of younger people didn’t grow up with disease so they think not having a vaccine is no big deal. Vaccines are a casualty of their own success in may ways. Because we have lived in the mass vaccination era, we don’t regularly see these diseases. Young people don’t know anyone with polio. They just think, it is a natural state for there to be no polio. But if you were just a little older, you knew people who had mumps and measles and polio and had to be hospitalized.

Q: What were the challenges to writing this piece and how did you overcome them?

A: There is an abundance of evidence out there, so it wasn’t hard to research. This is a health policy matter. The head of the National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Disease, Anthony Fauci, has made this a high priority and so he was willing to be interviewed for this story. It was easy to get people on the pro-immunization side of the story. But finding someone who was opposed to vaccination, to get someone credible, was challenging. The whole objection to vaccines is absurd. It is still driven by the that now-withdrawn Lancet report that has been repeatedly debunked. The researcher who wrote that report lost his medical license. But there is a permanence of that report. The lie has been enduring. That [false report] has done more to hurt vaccines than anything else. So it was really hard to find someone who had credibility. I finally found a lawyer who represents plaintiffs who oppose the elimination of personal and religious exemptions to vaccines.

Q: You raise an interesting challenge with regard to covering this vaccine story. Reporters are required to get both sides of a story, but what if the other point of view isn’t based on evidence, but rather on fear. What advice you have for reporters dealing with this challenge?

A: We, as journalists, have made an error in thinking balance is always a good thing. That isn’t our job. Balance isn’t more important than truth. There is no balance here on whether vaccines give autism. To give credit to this [point of view on vaccine opposition] isn’t our job. Every story doesn’t have two sides. That isn’t to say you don’t mention it, but don’t give equal weight to it. This drive for objectivity can lead us down the road of discredited claims and it is a mistake. You need to state what is out there and what the objections are, but you also can’t report on this as if there isn’t an existing objective truth, based on decades of scientific evidence.

Q: What were your favorite resources in researching this story?

A: I would say the information provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization, and the National Institutes of Health. I really got a lot of great information from the vaccine nonprofit, the California Immunization Coalition, which is working to boost vaccine rates. The National Conference of State Legislatures is tracking what is happening in state legislatures with regard to religious and personal exemptions, and that was helpful.

Q: What other advice might you have for journalists covering measles or any other infectious disease outbreak?

A: Find a good story. Like that one I started with Rachel, an Orthodox Jew living in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood and chose not to vaccinate the youngest of her seven children, because her eldest child became sick after receiving the measles vaccine. That is a good entry point for telling a story about infectious diseases and gets the general population interested.

Melba Newsome is an award-winning freelance writer. Her work has appeared in Time, O Magazine, ESPN Magazine, National Geographic, Wired and The New York Times.