Wednesday, November 09, 2005

COLUMN -- It takes courage to tell mercury story

Posted by Craig Westover | 8:28 AM |  

Wednesday, November 9, 2005

In 1988 the St. Paul Pioneer Press Dispatch won the Pulitzer Prize for feature writing. "AIDS in the Heartland" chronicled an AIDS patient from diagnosis to death. Setting the Pioneer Press apart was more than simply the passionate writing of reporter Jacqui Banaszynski. Great journalism has an attitude.

Banaszynski wanted a focus that "would go a step beyond the informational coverage of AIDS, a story that would not only humanize the AIDS crisis but enlighten and, perhaps, nudge society towards a more compassionate understanding of this stigmatized killer."

Yesterday's "AIDS in the Heartland" stands in sharp contrast to today's media coverage of another "stigmatized" cause — the battle of "zealot" parents to raise understanding of the plausible connection between thimerosal, a mercury-based preservative in some childhood vaccines, and autism.

"The thimerosal question — scientifically, politically, and emotionally complex — is proving to be a test for journalism," writes Dan Schulman in the November issue of Columbia Journalism Review. Steeped in controversy and intrigue, the thimerosal debate has all the makings of a compelling news story, yet it has been cautiously approached by news media, and if covered at all, is generally not portrayed as a legitimate scientific debate.

Locally, proposed legislation to limit the use of thimerosal in childhood vaccines prompted brief coverage on television news programs. The Minneapolis paper ran a single article that framed the controversy as parents versus experts. The Pioneer Press has not run more than a handful of stories on the topic on its news pages.

In the mid-1980s, AIDS was no less scientifically, politically and emotionally complex, especially when pursued to provide understanding, not just air the issue. Many readers were not happy with the detail or depth of "AIDS in the Heartland." Some accused the Pioneer Press of glorifying homosexuality, trading on death, exploiting a family's private pain. Managing Editor Mark Nadler defended the series as lifting the shroud of ignorance from AIDS.

"Ignorance breeds fear, and a search for culprits rather than cures," he wrote. "His (the patient's) is a story worth telling."

A story worth telling?

About the time "AIDS in the Heartland" was appearing in the Pioneer Press, the number of children diagnosed with autism was one in 10,000. Today, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention pegs the number at one in 166. During that time, the number of immunizations on the childhood vaccination schedule more than doubled, raising the dosage of mercury, a known neurotoxin, far above federal safety standards.

New York Times contributor David Kirby's book "Evidence of Harm," released in April, presented both sides of the thimerosal controversy in a documentary manner, allowing evidence (or absence of comment) to speak for itself. The resulting picture is that of knowledgeable parents and independent researchers challenging a stonewalled government and scientific establishment that relies on after-the-fact epidemiological studies, not before-the-fact safety data, to deny the autism link.

However, it has been establishment sources, journalists' go-to guys, framing the debate, often portraying parents as crackpots, conspiracy theorists or zealots, and researchers as junk scientists and charlatans. That perception, notes Schulman, has seeped into the collective consciousness of the news media.

There are as many reasons for news media not to cover the thimerosal controversy as there were for the Pioneer Press to back off the Pulitzer-worthy "AIDS in the Heartland" and go with a noncontroversial and "balanced" story. The difference is attitude — a willingness to take a risk to find the truth.

Beat reporters, notes Columbia Journalism Review, risk losing health sources by calling their judgment into question. A reporter told Schulman that covering the thimerosal controversy was nearly "career-ending." His superiors regarded treating the issue as a two-sided debate as legitimizing a crackpot theory and influencing parents to stop vaccinating their children or to seek out experimental treatments.

Real career challenges, to be sure, but what of responsibility to readers?

It took journalistic courage to face up to the AIDS epidemic and attack the story, to nudge society in the direction of understanding. Today, the autism epidemic could use a little less fear, a little more nudging and a little less fostering of ignorance.

"Whether the thimerosal theory is proved right or wrong, there will be consequences," writes Schulman, "for the public health apparatus and vaccine manufacturers, for parents and their children, even for journalists. But with science left to be done and scientists eager to do it, it seems too soon for the press to shut the door on the debate."


Westover is an Afton writer who blogs at He sits on the board of the Minnesota Autism Center, which has not taken a position in the thimerosal controversy and does not provide biomedical autism treatment. E-mail him at

Category: Column, Autism, Vaccines, Thimerosal