Most local TV news stories about autism are a cross between a CDC fact sheet and an unedited Lifetime movie script. There are boilerplate lines about “1:150 children with autism”, and “lack of social interaction” and “repetitive behaviors”. We see a hyperactive kid stimming on the camera lens, the interview with a stressed-out mother, and the family together at the kitchen table. Finally the big finish – religious faith, or a trusted caregiver, or a special school will see this family through.
KOMU-TV in Columbia, MO, aims to change all that with “a new form of investigative reporting” that lets anybody with an internet connection contribute to the narrative. To facilitate this free for all, KOMU started a blog, and invited anyone to post and comment what they think they know about autism. The six month-long investigation relies on college journalism students, and is supervised by KOMU reporter and part-time college student Ashley Reynolds, who wrote:
“… I know whatever story I do people aren’t always going to agree or be happy. I think covering a subject such as Autism you can fight studies vs. studies. It is safe to say all studies have critics. We want to show the debates. We want to give all sides their fair share.
It is a subject that has a billion different stories and each of those stories you will find passionate people on both sides of the debate…which in my shoes…makes it extremely complicated on how to cover such a topic. This is why we decided to start this blog. We want you to be involved in the process of journalism and help us understand your story. “
The “studies vs. studies” argument is frequently cited by reporters who write about autism, and it’s just plain wrong.
First, it conflates legitimate research with agenda-driven junk science. There is little disagreement among bona-fide, credentialed, peer-reviewed researchers that vaccines have anything to due with autism. No evidence-based physician would recommend chelation therapy for autism. And while special diets, hyperbaric oxygen therapy, and detoxifying saunas help with boat payments, there is no reliable evidence they help autistic children.
Second, “studies vs. studies” is a cop-out. It’s a throwaway line that stressed out reporters and editors use to wave off criticism. It’s like saying “Yeah, so what if you think I got it wrong? Somebody else thinks I got it right, and who am to to say what’s right and what’s wrong? I’m not a scientist. I’m just a reporter doing her job.” Yes it is “safe to say all studies have critics”, and safer still to avoid the harder job of separating the wheat of truth from the chaff of nonsense. Better to stay out of the muck, leave the rake at home. Just show the passion, and leave reason and science on the cutting room floor. Welcome to Journalism 101.
Last of all, “studies vs. studies” elevates paranoid cranks and other misfits to the same level as respected researchers. Using the same criteria, a creation scientist stands shoulder to shoulder with Albert Einstein and Galileo. In TV Newsland, it doesn’t matter if the creationist teaches shop at an Arizona junior college, as long as he’s produced a “study”, and gives good television. In the coming weeks, KOMU will elevate an entire phylum of unqualified spokespersons, all in the name of fairness and balance.
So in a superficial, not-investigated-very-well kind of way, it is accurate to say reporters who write about autism are naturally confounded by conflicting studies. But keep in mind, after several months of investigating autism from within, it’s apparent that Reynolds and her peeps have never stumbled across PubMed or fully grasped the value of peer-review science.
Journalists are a prickly bunch, and in most cases I don’t blame them. Until media organizations start hiring lawyers to cover the courts, and doctors to cover health care, and geologists to cover landfill zoning issues, we’re stuck with English majors covering all three. That said, the “studies v studies” argument is just plain wrong.
Reynolds says she first learned about autism last summer, when she reported on the Debate over Autism. That story pits a respected medical doctor with very convincing evidence that vaccines don’t cause autism against a mother who says her son showed signs of autism after the child received a vaccination. That’s the debate. It’s “study vs. study” all over again. Science in one corner, unconfirmed anecdote in the other.
“We want you to be involved in the process of journalism and help us understand your story,” Reynolds writes. If she really understood the story, she would know that among credible researchers, there is no debate about vaccines and autism, no good reason to claim an epidemic, and no reason to fall for the wily charms of snake oil salemen with MD after their names. We’ll find out just how deep her understanding is three weeks from now.