Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Columbia Journalism Review weighs in on Thimerosal controversy -- A lesson in how the MSM approaches a controversial topic

Posted by Craig Westover | 11:26 AM |  

There is a excellent piece in the most recent issue of Columbia Journalism Review that takes a look at the way the press has covered the Thimerosal issue -- the controversy over whether mercury in childhood vaccines can cause neurological damage in some children. Even if you have no personal interest in the vaccine question, the story is a very honest appraisal of the way the mainstream media approaches and covers -- or fails to cover -- a controversial story.

[Full disclosure -- I’m quoted at the end of the story.]

The article, by CJR assistant editor Dan Schulman, begins by providing context for the Thimerosal controversy, and in doing so makes a keen observation about how a story is initiated in the press. Following the publication of the 2004 Institute of Medicine report rejecting any Thimerosal-autism link, Schulman notes --

Under headlines such as this one from The Washington Post, EXPERTS FIND NO VACCINE-AUTISM LINK; PANEL SAYS MORE RESEARCH ON POSSIBLE CONNECTION MAY NOT BE WORTHWHILE, the press dutifully reported the IOM’s conclusions, perhaps as eager to lay the question to rest as the IOM panel itself.
From a pure press analysis perspective, the implied chain of events is the norm. Most stories that appear in the press are the result of a release from some recognized, authoritative body. That release essentially frames the story for the reporter. In most cases, the reporter has at best general knowledge of the issue, rarely enough -- especially in the case of the Thimerosal issue -- to evaluate the slant of the release. The initial response of a reporter, after determining if the press release is worth a follow-up at all, is to call his “usual” sources to get their take on the issue.

A reporter might work on as many as five such stories a week; a news editor edit as many as 30. Given that load, unless the reporter/editor has some context that sets bells ringing that a story deserves more than he said/she said coverage, that’s all a story is going to get. As Schulman writes --

[The Thimerosal question] -- scientifically, politically, and emotionally complex — is proving to be a test for journalism, and the successes and failures are evident in the coverage.
Early on in the Thimerosal controversy, it was the government framing the debate with the bulk of the scientific establishment denying the autism link, citing the conclusions of the IOM panel, and viewing believers as crackpots, conspiracy theorists, or zealots — a perspective many medical experts barely conceal in conversations with reporters. Schulman notes --

In an interview with Myron Levin of the Los Angeles Times after the publication of the IOM report, Dr. Stephen Cochi, the head of the CDC’s national immunization program, dismissed supporters of the thimerosal theory as “junk scientists and charlatans.” If so, then such universities as Harvard and Columbia, among others, employ charlatans — scientists who believe that a link between mercury exposure and autism is plausible. Even so, the perception that only distraught, activist parents and disreputable scientists back the thimerosal theory has seeped into the collective consciousness of the news media, which, in general, have been reluctant to cover the controversy. . . . Steeped in controversy and intrigue, the thimerosal debate has all the makings of a compelling news story, yet it has been approached with caution by the news media, which, more often than not, don’t portray it as a legitimate scientific debate.
Case in point a New York Times article (June 25), the product of five months of reporting by Gardiner Harris and Anahad O’Connor. Schulman characterizes the story this way (and I agree) --

Headlined ON AUTISM'S CAUSE, IT'S PARENTS VS. RESEARCH, the story cast the thimerosal connection as a fringe theory, without scientific merit, held aloft by angry, desperate parents. The notion that supporters of the theory were disregarding irrefutable scientific findings was an underlying theme, drilled home several times. “It’s really terrifying, the scientific illiteracy that supports these suspicions,” Dr. Marie McCormick told the Times. Readers were left with little option but to believe that the case against thimerosal was scientifically unsound. . . .

The story alluded to Boyd Haley, chairman of the department of chemistry at the University of Kentucky and an ally of thimerosal activists, in the same sentence as a Louisiana physician who believes “that God spoke to her through an 87-year-old priest and told her that vaccines caused autism” — leaving Haley, it would seem, guilty by association of lunacy. Several reporters I spoke with who have covered the thimerosal controversy described the Times story as a smear. One called it a “hit piece.”
While news papers like the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times are weighing in on the story, many more are not or doing so only superficially. It’s interesting to note that Times reporter Harris flew to St. Paul to cover the Minnesota Senate Health Committee hearing on a bill that would have required Thimerosal-free childhood vaccines in Minnesota, which is supported by local parent groups, but opposed by the Minnesota Department of Health. Neither the St. Paul nor Minneapolis papers sent reporters to the hearing. The Star Tribune did run a “he said/she said” story on the controversy with no follow-up. Aside from my self-generated columns, the Pioneer Press has not touched the issue.

Why? Among the reasons, says Schulman, is a very real fear that taking the thimerosal theory seriously will prompt antivaccine blowback.

Myron Levin, the Los Angeles Times reporter, said that some journalists have been cowed by the notion that “by the mere act of covering this, they will instill panic in the vaccination-getting public, or feed mindless phobias that cause people to refuse to let their kids get shots.” That concern is reflected in the coverage and has implications for how deeply the story is reported. “I think many news organizations have held back and given the story short shrift,” Levin said.
The mother of an autistic child interviewed by the Star Tribune for its Thimerosal story said the reporter indicated to her creating unwarranted vaccine fears was an issue in the Strib decision about how to cover the controversy. Star Tribune Government and Politics Team Leader Doug Tice (whom I have a great deal of respect for) wrote --

"I assigned this story and worked with Pat [Doyle], 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."
Tice’s statement illustrates the conflict a journalist goes through when determining whether or not to pursue a tough story. It certainly was a conflict for me, which Schulman notes in the CJR article in the context of the death of a Pittsburgh boy during chelation -- a controversial process for removing mercury and other heavy metals from the body to reduce autistic symptoms.

To journalists, for whom the perils of covering thimerosal have been purely theoretical, this incident could only underscore the potential dangers of lending any credibility to the autism link.

The day the boy’s death was reported, Craig Westover, a columnist at the St. Paul Pioneer Press, who writes frequently about thimerosal, received acid comments from readers on his blog. One reader, writing under the name Credenza, wrote, “They finally did it Mr. Westover, they killed a little boy trying to get that satanic mercury out of his little body. You have some blood on your hands. Like it or not you do. There has been no autism epidemic and thimerosal doesn’t cause autism . . . . I hope the parents of this boy point the finger at you and scream murder.”

“I really do try to walk a middle line on this,” Westover told me that day, as he mulled his response to the reader. “You have to go out and investigate this and be able to come to some sort of conclusion. Not definitely that thimerosal does or does not cause autism, but you have to come to the question of whether this theory is plausible or not. Otherwise, I think you’re doing a disservice to your reader.” The evidence has led Westover to believe that a connection is possible. He realizes, moreover, that what he writes may influence others to believe the same.

The Thimerosal issue is one of those controversies that I firmly believe raises an issue requires some kind of conclusion from a journalist other than a “balanced” view that presents both sides with equal weight. The writer owes it to the reader to share his perceptions and the results of his research that might not be conveyed by just “he said she said” statements. The Star Tribune’s Tice notes --

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.
I can buy that line of reasoning, but neither columnists nor editorial page followed up the Strib news piece to provide context or conclusion. I admit that both as an opinion columnist and a contract (not career) employee with the Pioneer Press, I have an advantage -- what I write about is by my choice. As Schulman notes of career journalists --

Some reporters who have portrayed this as an ongoing scientific controversy have been discouraged by colleagues and their superiors from pursuing the story. A reporter for a major media outlet, who did not want to be identified for fear of retribution, told me that covering the thimerosal controversy had been nearly “career-ending” and described butting heads with superiors who believed that the reporter’s coverage — in treating the issue as a two-sided debate — legitimized a crackpot theory and risked influencing parents to stop vaccinating their children or to seek out experimental treatments for their autistic sons and daughters. The reporter has decided against pursuing stories on thimerosal, at least for the time being. “For some reason giving any sort of credence to the side that says there’s a legitimate question here — I don’t know how it becomes this untouchable story, I mean that’s what we do, so I don’t understand why this story is more touchy than any story I’ve ever done.”
Couple fear for one’s career with the fact that the bulk of the public health establishment dismisses the thimerosal theory. For regular reporters that rely on the same pool of medical experts and health officials regularly, raises issues that call the judgment of those sources into questions brings fear of reprisals.

But what of the obligation of mainstream media to readers, rather than their careers? There are some profiles in courage among the mainstream press highlighted by Schulman.

Among major newspapers, the Los Angeles Times’s coverage of thimerosal stands out. It has taken the story seriously and devoted significant coverage to it, partly because through the summer and fall of 2004 a bill to ban thimerosal from all vaccines given to infants and pregnant women was making its way through the California legislature. (Again, the same prompt didn’t move the Pioneer Press.) For his effort, reporter Myron Levitt drew the ire of the pharmaceutical industry.

Some of the most enterprising journalistic contributions to the thimerosal debate have come from UPI senior editor Dan Olmsted’s “Age of Autism” series. However, aside from the Washington Times, not a single U.S. paper that Olmsted knows of has run any part of the series. It has, however, been widely disseminated on the Internet.

And, of course, New York Times contributing writer David Kirby, whose book "Evidence of Harm" has more or less ignighted the controversy and brought it to mainstream attention.

Schulman notes that covering the Thimerosal story as it should be covered definitely has risks for a journalist. However, he concludes --

Whether the thimerosal theory is proved right or wrong, there will be consequences — 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.
Hopefully our local paper takes note.

Category: Autism, Vaccines, Thimerosal