Tuesday, April 19, 2005

He said, she said journalism

Posted by Craig Westover | 10:02 AM |  

Writing in the Star Tribune today, reporter Pat Doyle offers a bit of "he said, she said" journalism that adds virtually nothing to the debate over vaccine safety. The medical establishment trots out the same denials, so there is really no need for any comment other than this link.

However, this article says a lot about the way the mainstream media thinks.

Doyle spent less than a week researching this complex topic. He touched all his bases like an "objective" reporter should by contacting people on both sides of the debate. He duitifully reports "what he said and she said," but he offers the reader no insight into his interviews nor does he give the reader the benefit of his albeit cursory research.

An email alerting me that this story was in the works mentioned that Doyle was operating from the premise that the Strib did not want to scare people out of vaccinating their children.

First, let me say that, after doing my homework, I support the position that parents should not arbitrarily keep their kids from being vaccinated. They should consult their pediatricians, ask questions and satisfy themselves as to the risks involved and work with their doctors to minimize those risks. However, let me repeat -- I say that only after having done a hellevua lot of research. Had that research led to the opposite conclusion that all vaccines should be avoided, I'd have said so.

The point is, by going into this story with the "bias" that it can't scare people, the Strib compromised the reporter's search for truth right out of the gate. A reader is left wondering if the story is "truthful," or simply "balanced."

All Doyle's story does is fill a news hole. It contributes nothing to the debate. It doesn't drive to a conclusion. It doesn't force any action. It doesn't help readers. If they care at all, they are merely confused and left to do the hard research on their own. At best, the story may make a few people aware there is an issue. Hopefully it might inspire a few people with "autistic" kids to explore possible biomedical treatment.

Nonetheless, the story is a poor excuse for journalism.

UPDATE: In the interest of balanced reporting: Doug Tice, the Politics and Government Team Leader at the Star Tribune writes --
Well, I think you're being a little harsh. The story makes it clear that the weight of official scientific opinion says there's no link, while it also reports the views of parents who continue to doubt those findings. I guess that doesn't "advance the debate" in the sense of drawing a final conclusion. But a news story's purpose is to report the news -- the existence of this debate and where it stands. That may not help a person already familiar with the debate, but many are not. We have columnists and editorialists for the purpose of examining evidence and making conclusions.

As you know, I share some doubts about the effectiveness of even-handed reporting of issue debates. But I can't get to the point of believing that everything in the paper should be an opinion piece.

I assigned this story and worked with Pat, and it's actually not true that concern about frightening parents dominated our thinking or our approach to the story. The partisans may believe that, but you shouldn't take their claims and interpretations as fact. That said, I don't think that wanting to avoid causing groundless fear is an altogether inappropriate motive for this or any other story.

Finally, you complain that Pat's research wasn't thorough or lengthy enough. Well, he writes about five news stories a week, and I edit about 30. We haven't the luxury of exhaustive research on every subject we address, but we do the best we can.