Media reporting on pseudoscience: When should a newspaper abandon the “report both sides” mantra?

In response to my post yesterday castigating J. B. Handley of Generation Rescue for hypocritically accusing the American Academy of Pediatrics of “manipulating the media” when manipulating the media is Generation Rescue’s raison d’être, Mike the Mad Biologist turned me on to a rather fascinating article in the New York Times by its Public Editor Clark Hoyt entitled The Doctors Are In. The Jury Is Out. It discusses a topic very near and dear to my heart, namely how newspapers report scientific or medical controversies, specifically, how the NYT covers controversies in which one side is the consensus scientific view and the other is a fringe, specifically addressing the question of when a newspaper should abandon the neutral voice and giving equal time to the two sides; in other words, when is one “scientific viewpoint” considered sufficiently fringe that it doesn’t deserve to be considered seriously as a scientific option? Or, as the NYT puts it:

When does fairness demand that a newspaper walk down the middle in a scientific dispute, and when does responsibility demand that it take sides?

It is hardly a new question, and The Times, historically, has been slow to declare victors. In 1979, fully 15 years after a landmark federal report said that smoking was dangerous, articles in The Times still quoted Tobacco Institute spokesmen arguing that it had not been proved. By the end of the next year, when another government report called smoking the leading cause of preventable death, the newspaper made no effort to present “the other side.” The issue was settled.

Even better, one of the examples used was a NYT article on the ABC television show Eli Stone, which featured a storyline straight out of the Generation Rescue playbook of pseudoscience in which the hero takes on the cause of an autistic child whose mother is suing a pharmaceutical company because she believed that that company’s vaccines caused the child’s autism and wins a $5.2 million judgment, even though science does not support such a verdict. I praised the article as for once not showing a false equivalence between the claim that mercury in vaccines causes autism and the science that says that it does not. Advocates claiming such a link such as David Kirby and Don Imus were, not surprisingly not happy at all about the reporting.

Here’s what Clark Hoyt said about the NYT story on Eli Stone:

On Jan. 23, Edward Wyatt, a culture reporter in the Los Angeles bureau, reported on the cover of The Arts section that the first episode of “Eli Stone,” a legal drama on ABC, was stepping into the debate over whether childhood vaccines cause autism — “and seemingly coming down on the side that has been all but dismissed by prominent scientific organizations.”

In the episode, the lawyer-hero of “Eli Stone” wins a big jury verdict for the mother of an autistic child by arguing that there was proof that a mercury-based preservative in a flu vaccine caused the boy’s condition. But in studies over the years, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Food and Drug Administration, the Institute of Medicine, the World Health Organization and the American Academy of Pediatrics have all found no evidence to support a connection between vaccines and autism. Thimerosal, the preservative in question, was removed from children’s vaccines in 2001, and autism rates have not gone down.

The pediatricians, fearing that the episode would cause some parents to stop vaccinating their children, appealed to ABC to cancel it. The network refused, but added a disclaimer directing viewers to a government Web site that discredits any link between vaccines and autism.

Wyatt’s article made clear that there is a debate but did not give equal weight to the two sides. The Times has not since 2005, when two reporters investigated every scientific study and thousands of documents from parents convinced of a link between autism and vaccines, and came down pretty clearly on the side of the scientists.

Wyatt said he relied on that report and read extensively about autism when he got the first hint of what the “Eli Stone” episode would say. “The show seems to portray it as, ‘No one knows,’ ” he said. “My conclusion was that that is not the case.”

Indeed, the door on this controversy seems to be closing, but the Centers for Disease Control is conducting one more study, expected to be published next year.

This is about as close to the right approach as we’re likely to see from a major newspaper. Moreover Wyatt shows amazing insight. Portraying the controversy as a scientific one and and the question of whether vaccines cause autism as so unsettled as to be characterized by saying “nothing knows” is exactly what groups like Generation Rescue want. But this issue goes far beyond the ideological controversy (it is not a scientific one) over vaccines. There are a number of other issues where the press could do with a healthy dose of how the NYT has decided to handle the “thimerosal/autism” claim. Chief among these, of course, is “intelligent design” creationism. Far too often, when I see an article or story about evolution ID creationists are given equal time with evolutionary biologists as though what they have to say has anywhere near the same weight, thus giving the impression of a real scientific controversy. Another beneficiary of this “report both sides” tendency of the press is so-called “complementary and alternative” medicine (CAM). In fact, for CAM often the position is reversed, with the claims of unscientific practitioners being given the most prominence and the side of science- and evidence-based medicine being represented by a single soundbite from a token skeptic. Indeed, the same is true of claims of the paranormal or other fringe science, be it ghosts, bigfoot, UFOs, alien abductions, or whatever. Indeed, just tonight I saw a story on the local news about seeing images of the ghosts of relatives in family photos, with almost no skeptical viewpoint to be seen.

As admirable as the NYT’s policy is regarding pseudoscientific claims, there are lots of forces acting against such a sound policy. For one thing, fringe claims are exciting and interesting. They can also be compelling. For example, it’s far more interesting to find a “cause” of autism by human hands (vaccines) than it is to report that it’s due to genetic causes having nothing to do with vaccines. It’s far more exciting to report that Bigfoot might exist than to report that there’s no evidence that he does. It makes far more compelling television to report that ghostly images on photos might be the spirits of long dead relatives than it is to show that it’s just optics and other artifacts of photography.

Another such force is the inherent obligation of fairness, to report both sides, to give “both sides” a chance to have their say. In many areas of reporting, this is, of course, not only admirable, but absolutely essential. One such area is politics. If a politician accuses his opponent of doing something dishonest, a reporter must try to interview the accused. If there is a political controversy, advocates of both sides must be given the opportunity tell their points of view. Another such area is crime. If the story is about someone being accused of a crime, then it is incumbent on reporters to try to give the accused the opportunity to defend himself. This dedication to fairness at all costs or framing of most stories as conflicts between competing viewpoints of roughly equal validity becomes problematic in issues of science. Let’s face it, in science and medicine there are viewpoints that are so far on the fringe and so unsupported by evidence that it is indeed irresponsible to present “both sides” as though they have anywhere near equal validity. In fact, the one quibble that I have about Hoyt’s analysis is that I don’t see nearly the conflict between “fairness” and “responsibility” that he does.

Perhaps the most intractable force arrayed against accurate reporting of fringe science in its proper context (i.e., no scientific support) is few reporters are either qualified to determine what is a valid, albeit minority, scientific viewpoint and therefore deserving of the full “report both sides” treatment, and what is pseudoscience and therefore unworthy of being presented alongside legitimate science. Consequently, there is a strong tendency to give the fringe view the benefit of the doubt and present it as a valid alternative. Remember, the NYT can attract the best and the brightest science and medicine reporters. It can afford to let two reporters investigate an issue like whether vaccines cause autism or not long enough to come to the correct conclusion. Few media outlets have either the trained reporters, the resources, or, it appears to me, the inclination to apply a similar level of rigor to a scientific issue.

The penalties, however, for not trying to increase the level of scientific rigor of science reporting is the credulous reporting of pseudoscience. One such example is a story about vaccines and autism that appeared on a local Oklahoma City newscast. (Hat tip: ERV.)Note how, although a physician presenting the scientific consensus that vaccines don’t cause autism is allowed to present his point of view, he is presented on at best equal footing with the anecdote of the parents blaming vaccines for their son’s autism and one Dr. Delmar Geen arguing that vaccines do cause autism. Meanwhile, the story uses a graphic, figures, and claims of “toxins” in vaccines straight out of last week’s Generation Rescue ad. Folks, medical reporting doesn’t get any worse than this, and antivaccinationists are already gloating over it, with J.B. Handley himself pleased as punch that the story parroted the Generation Rescue ad that ran in USA Today last week.

So what can we as scientists do to avoid such debacles? Clearly one thing is to be available to the media when they call. Another is to avoid letting fear of seeming dogmatic keep us from pointing out in no uncertain terms when science definitely does not support a fringe viewpoint. Finally, we need to make our voices heard when we see examples of such egregious reporting, be it through letters to the editor, letters to producers of newscasts like the one above, and even phone calls. Blogs, too, are a great way of deconstructing bad science reporting. We have to remember that advocates of pseudoscience are not silent. Mark Blaxill, for instance, is most unhappy at Hoyt’s article and has written a whining complaint to Hoyt about how unfair the NYT is being to his viewpoint, how many “scientists” support the view that vaccines cause autism, and how advocates are being included on important government panels investigating autism. (I told you that the mercury militia would use this to its advantage.)

Sadly, pseudoscientists never rest when it comes to getting their message to the public, and we as scientists cannot afford not to do the same anymore.