Citing “experts” is a double edge sword. On one hand, a knowledgeable expert is often necessary for a journalist to interpret complex science. On the other, journalists who don’t exercise discretion when deciding who deserves the “expert label” are easily played.
If one looks hard enough, it is possible to find an expert who supports virtually any idea, no matter how outrageous. Holocaust denial has long wrapped itself in the respectability of science to acquit the Nazis of mass murder.
Here’s an expert, PhD and all, who says the Earth is only 8,000 years old.
Professor J. Phillipe Rushton wrote a book which makes the case, with some irony, that white people are smarter than brown people.
Which brings us to KOKH-TV, the Fox affiliate station in Oklahoma City. General assignment reporter Phil Cross led off a piece on vaccines and autism by telling us “Some autism experts claim that an increase in childhood immunizations could be at least partially to blame for what the CDC calls an autism epidemic.” He never tells us who those experts are, or specifically what they’ve found. And I’m still looking for where the CDC called autism an epidemic. But in TV news land, a transparent appeal to nameless authority is the Swiss Army knife of rhetorical tools, handy for tackling dozens of reporting assignments.
Cross interviews Robyne Rhode, mother of 10-year-old Nick Rhode, the namesake of the pending Nick’s Law, which would mandate private insurance coverage for autism treatment. Robyne blames vaccines for her son’s autism, and says after Nick’s second set of shots at age five she “lost him completely.” Later, she tells us “Mercury is so very toxic, that even a trace amount, in my opinion, is harmful to a child.”
Some appeals to authority are downright baffling.
Cross then introduces us to Dr. Delmar Gheen, an Edmond, OK , pediatrician who thinks an aggressive vaccination schedule may be responsible for autism.
Cross and Gheen parrot the latest anti-vaccine extremist talking point that the increase in the vaccination schedule since 1983 mirrors the increase in autism.
“When you give a child a vaccine that may have 5,6,7,9 immunization issues in one day, we may have overwhelmed that child’s immune system to the point where it could cause deleterious effects,” intones Gheen.
“That’s an interesting theory. One, it’s never been proven,” says Dr. Steven Crawford, the token skeptic hauled out for these kinds of stories. About the temporal relationship between vaccine scheduling and autism prevalence, he says “Just because they happen at the same time doesn’t mean one causes the other. They just happen at the same time.”
Cross tells AutismNewsBeat that he met the Rhode Family while covering Nick’s Law. “That’s when I learned there is much more to the topic of autism that hasn’t been covered, including the vaccination issue,” he says. “I was totally unaware of how much the vaccination schedule has changed since I was a kid.”
The Rhodes provided Cross with questionable studies, and pointed him to Dr. Gheen, rather than, say, an infectious disease expert at the University of Oklahoma’s College of Medicine.
“I did a lot of research into autism and vaccines,” says Cross. “The CDC reports say there is no link, but other studies point elsewhere. Every side has a point to make. I was trying to be fair in my coverage.”
There it is again – that reflexive urge to be fair. But fair to whom? To the viewers who need to know what legitimate scientists say? Or fair to the story’s source, who says she is working hard to “recover” her autistic son?
He says most of his research was internet-based. Were the studies peer reviewed?
“They all had their own citations, but to tell you the truth, I’ve read so many studies in the last month that I can’t name any specific authors,” he says. “I did not have access to scholarly journals or a medical library. That’s why I didn’t say vaccines cause autism.”
Cross says “Vaccines: Progress or Poison?”is not anti-vaccine. “No one in my story said ‘don’t vaccinate your children’. There are other issues,” he says. “When you have a trace amount of something in a vaccine, and you end up giving several vaccines at once, you end up giving a substantial amount. So why not just back off and spread out those vaccinations? In the first six years of life, you have a lot of time to give 36 vaccines.”
Cross says that if parents are concerned by reports like this, “they need to know that kids don’t need to get the vaccines all at once. Spreading out the schedule eliminates the concern parents have, even if that concern is not scientifically valid.”
Translation: If my story is misleading and causes unwarranted fear, it’s no big deal. Parents can just change the vaccination schedule to include more visits to the pediatrician’s office.