If you’ve been following KOMU’s biased and misleading series, Combating Autism from Within, then you’re probably expecting nothing to come from the justifiable outrage expressed by evidence-based critics of the University of Missouri affiliated station. If you haven’t been following, then you should start, because this sad tale speaks to the larger problem with the way journalism is taught, even at the nation’s better schools.
KOMU reporter Ashley Reynolds, who is also a undergraduate student in the university’s school of journalism, says she first reported on autism last summer. That’s when she interviewed a local pediatrician, Judith Miles, MD, PhD, about a published study that found no support for the thimerosal-autism hypothesis.
The interview was met with howls of protest from all the usual suspects – agenda driven anti-vaccine activists, bio-med marketers, and other dead enders. Apparently, their emails and phone calls made an impression, enough so that Reynolds followed up with a “six month investigation” into autism. She recruited other journalism undergrads, who drove around the midwest for several weeks last fall interviewing families and “controversial researchers”. The result is a 14-part infomercial for wishful thinking.
What went wrong at KOMU? I put this question to a friend of mine, a former communications professor with ties to Columbia. Here’s her take: “Undergrads do not know the difference between investigating something and kinda thinking about it. I am sure that they Googled the topic, picked the top hits, printed them out and ‘reported’ on them six months later.”
This sounds about right. If the reporters learned anything about the science of autism, they’ve kept it to themselves.
My contact predicts that the dean of the journalism school will circle the wagons and “fight tooth and nail to protect their paying customers – the students.” Journalism school is considered a safe haven for student experimentation. Standards of conduct such as critical thinking, reliance on real evidence, and awareness of confirmation bias will be ignored when they stand in the way of Geraldo-style voyeurism.
But j-school is about to run smack into real life, as word comes that some physicians at the University of Missouri’s medical school are asking for a word with the journalism dean and the grown ups in charge of KOMU. This action mirrors a recent trend of physicians, public health officials, and major media outlets speaking against agenda-driven anti-vaccine activitists. Last week, Dr. Nancy Minshew, a leading autism researcher, said that autism is not caused by vaccinations, and “those who continue to push that theory are endangering the lives of children and misdirecting the nation’s scarce resources for autism research.” The New York Times editorialized last week against Eli Stone, an ABC “dramedy” that pushed a storyline that linked flu shots and autism:
Never mind that such authoritative bodies as the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization have found no evidence of a causal link. Never mind that the incidence of autism continued to rise even after mercury preservatives were phased out of almost all childhood vaccines. As far as Eli Stone is concerned, you can’t just rely on science. Sometimes you have to go on faith.
If Columbia’s School of Journalism takes its responsibilities seriously, and I have no reason to believe it doesn’t, then it will salvage a teachable moment from this train wreck. Some helpful suggestions, courtesy of the academic quoted above:
Strengthen the college’s science reporting with a seminar or a special class. Sports reporters are expected to be steeped in athletics. Weatherpersons study meteorology. So why shouldn’t reporters who report medical issues be expected to understand how science works?
Forge a partnership between the journalism school and the medical college, so the next time students get an urge to take an alt-med road trip, they can interview the knowledgeable researchers next door instead of traveling out-state to fawn over conspiracy-minded provocateurs and other cranks.
Whatever decision the dean makes, the focus should be on education and not on undergrad students getting it wrong. There will be plenty of time for career suicide later in life.