The Most Egregious Example of False Balance

Discussions about vaccines are not debates, and the science behind vaccines does not have two sides any more than the science behind the roundness of the Earth does. So why are journalists still trying to balance their reporting about immunization with “the other side”?

I am somewhat sympathetic to journalists. Sometimes, when people in a community are making noise about their vaccine denialism, a journalist might have a hard time ignoring their noise in a story, even if their noise, while loud, represents a micro-minority of the community.

Today, however, I found one article about which I can muster no sympathy. It was a story about a boy out of Ft. Myers, Florida who had undergone a liver transplant due to cancer and then caught chickenpox from an unvaccinated child. Predictably, because of his compromised immune system, chickenpox nearly cost him his life.

It started off so promising, and it is really important for people in a community to be able to put faces to the abstract idea of “immunocompromised” and understand that real children need the real protection from community immunity. Our vaccines protect our friends and neighbors, too, after all.

In this very important story about a child who was already sick and whose community failed to protect him, the journalist included this quote from a chiropractor with no expertise in vaccines, immunology, or infectious diseases:

So, NBC2 spoke with Doctor Brienne Gindele.

She’s a family chiropractor in Fort Myers who does not believe in vaccinating young children.

‘The risks do not outweigh any benefits as far as I’m concerned, the neurological changes it makes to on especially an infant,” Dr. Gindele explained.

Gindele does believe it is the parents [sic] responsibility to make sure their children are immune to certain viruses though, whether a vaccine is used or not.

“If people choose to immunize then they need to be educated enough to understand that they need to get their children’s immunity checked,” Dr. Gindele told NBC2.

Dr. Gindele can believe all the livelong day anything she wants, but her beliefs are not supported by science, and they certainly are not newsworthy any more than the beliefs of a person who doesn’t like how seatbelts wrinkle his clothing would be relevant in a story about a near-fatal car accident. In fact, some of Dr. Gindele’s beliefs are factually wrong. Vaccines do not make neurological changes on an infant (and yes, that is code for autism).

Furthermore, this poor boy’s parents did not need to get his immunity checked. His parents knew he was completely vulnerable to chickenpox because he had undergone treatment for cancer and an organ transplant. They knew they were relying on the community to protect him. The community failed, and one chiropractor who uses fear of vaccines to sell her own services and is making excuses for this failure is completely irrelevant to this boy’s plight.

The journalist ends the piece with a quote from the parents, but she introduces it this way:

But, the Bells believe differently.

I can’t speak for the Bells, but their perspective is not about beliefs. As a matter of evidence and reality, their child actually suffered from a disease that he caught because charlatans continue to promote the idea that vaccines cause autism–something they (insultingly and incorrectly) frame as a fate worse than death. In a community where parents fell prey to this misinformation and endangered the life of a boy who deserved protecting, one journalist decided to continue to make the world a dangerous place by giving the purveyors of misinformation another platform.

Avoiding false balance isn’t just about being accurate. It’s also about not creating a world that endangers the lives of children.

UPDATE: If you tried clicking on the hyperlink to the article in question, you will notice that it has been taken down after numerous people emailed the producers at NBC-2 in Ft. Myers and Tweeted to the journalist in question. I have archived the article here. Together, we can eliminate false balance in media stories about vaccines.

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