What happens when a journalist interviews an anti-vaccine activist and doesn’t even bother with the pretense of balancing the piece with a pro-vaccine voice?
I’m glad you asked that question, as I have a real life example in the form an article published in the Santa Clarita Valley (CA) News. “Local parents rally for a referendum on vaccine bill” is a gleeful romp through anti-vaccine tropes and mythology without a whiff of fact-finding. The article is about activists trying to pass a referendum that would repeal the new California law which eliminates all non-medical exemptions to vaccines.
Of course, false balance is a real issue. No one wants journalists to evenly distribute print space between a pro-vaccine advocate and an anti-vaccine advocate because it gives the impression that both opinions are valid when one side is supported by an avalanche of evidence and the other is supported by 9/11 truthers and those who fear Agenda 21.
False balance would be an improvement on this piece, though, which only mentions the pro-vaccine doctor/legislator who authors this bill but doesn’t actually seek comment or quote him at all. Of course, mentioning Senator Pan is immediately followed up by the perspective of the anti-vaccine brigade:
The bill’s sponsors — Sen. Richard Pan, D-Sacramento, and Sen. Ben Allen, D-Santa Monica — framed the issue as one of public health and safety, saying decreases in vaccination rates endangered not just those who were not vaccinated, but those around them.
Opponents, however, question those claims, saying that those who are vaccinated can still catch diseases.
“Those who are vaccinated can still catch the disease,” is quite the sleight of hand. A child who is unvaccinated against measles and exposed has a 90% chance of catching the disease and can pass it on to 12-18 people without immunity. A fully vaccinated person, on the other hand, has a 97% chance of not catching it, and therefore a minuscule chance of passing it on to anyone else. So if you want to weigh infecting 18 people against infecting 0 people equally and claim that protecting those who cannot be vaccinated is not the responsibility of each person, then have at it. But you probably shouldn’t report it that way if you are a journalist because it flies in the face of fact.
Perhaps, though, this journalist was hoodwinked into believing that those featured in the piece were not anti-vaccine. After all, the article proclaims:
Six Santa Clarita Valley residents involved in the referendum drive sat down for an interview Friday and, during a lengthy conversation, said their position is not one that is anti-common sense, anti-science — or even anti-vaccine.
“I’m not anti-vaccine,” said Valencia resident Courtney Lackey, her hands resting on her petition clipboard. “I’m pro-vaccine safety.”
It’s odd, of course, that those being interviewed are allowed to frame themselves without question. If Donald Trump were to say, “I’m not anti-immigrant” (though it’s doubtful he ever would), a journalist would immediately come back with all the statements he’s made that prove otherwise.
So how odd is it that anti-vaxxers are allowed to assert that they are “pro-vaccine safety” without being questioned about what that means. Are they saying that the scientists who study vaccines in clinical trials to make sure there are no safety concerns regarding vaccines are not pro-vaccine safety? Or the researchers who spend their days analyzing post-licensure information to catch the extremely rare reactions, are they not pro-vaccine safety? It’s a strange way to spend your time studying something that you are against, I’d say.
Or are they saying they would be for vaccines if they were proven safe? That cannot be true, since vaccines have been proven safe, according to an Institute of Medicine review of one thousand studies. Also, if they are pro-vaccine safety, they surely must endorse some vaccines that they think are safe, but they do not. They don’t endorse any vaccines, despite evidence that they are safe, because they are not pro-vaccine safety.
They are anti-vaccine. They are against vaccines. They do not want to give their children vaccines, and they want others to do the same so that they feel camaraderie in their choices, community health be damned. And we know this because the article quotes parent Landee Martin saying, “People would leave California before they put their kids at risk.” The risk here is not leaving them vulnerable to diseases that historically have maimed and killed children in the United States. No, the risk is getting a very safe vaccine, something supported by nearly every pediatrician, family physician, nurse, researcher, and public health official.
At some point, I wanted to cut this journalist some slack. After all, how does someone report on political action (the referendum to overturn immunization legislation) or resistance to vaccination without actually interviewing anti-vaxxers and printing their words?
However, the last paragraph is the takeaway of any news article. It can also betray a journalist’s hidden bias. And this article ends:
Whether they agree with SB 277 or not, some referendum proponents said, allowing more time to review the issue and giving residents the ability to vote would be a positive thing.
The way one could summarize this article is that some concerned citizens who just want vaccines to be safe and to protect parent rights are working to help the public by giving the new legislation some time to be reviewed. It’s a good thing.
In reality, what we have here is a journalist who was, possibly willingly, hoodwinked. The anti-vaxxers were allowed to define themselves as agents for public good instead of those who present a threat to public health. Their statements were left unchecked by the journalist–or even by the bad journalistic practice of false balance. (And, yes, false balance would have been an improvement.) And finally, the bill was spun as a threat to freedom and rights while the actions of the referendum-seekers was spun as “a positive thing.”
Some would say that the referendum and the anti-vaccine actions should not have even been reported on, but I think it should have been reported on more responsibly. Here are my editorial suggestions, for what they are worth:
- Do not allow anti-vaccine activists to define themselves as pro-vaccine safety without a challenge. At minimum add a sentence about how vaccines are safe, but preferably just call them anti-vaccine.
- Include quotes from those involved in passing the original legislation (SB277) and their response to the anti-vaccine backlash.
- Include background information, such as information about the Disneyland measles outbreak and the very low immunization rates in various California communities.
- Correct anti-vaccine misstatements about the “risk” involved in vaccinating. Note: this correction is the journalist’s responsibility and should not be part of a quote coming from an expert.
- Frame this referendum alongside other referendums Californians are hoping to pass, perhaps the referendum to make California a sovereign country, in order to help the public understand the legitimacy of ballot measures versus legislation.
That’s not really too much to ask, is it?