News and entertainment media coverage of autism and vaccines in 2009 will be remembered best for some outstanding works of investigative journalism. The Chicago Tribune schooled the moribund newspaper industry with two blockbuster exposés on autism quackery and child abuse. In May the paper introduced America to two physicians who rake in big bucks by chemically castrating autistic children. In November the dynamic reporting duo of Trine Tsouderos and Patricia Callahan exposed the junk science behind chelation therapy and other quack treatments for autism.
In October, Wired Magazine showed us what science writing looks like when stripped of false balance. In Epidemic of Fear, veteran writer Amy Wallace showed readers how the “controversy” over vaccines exists solely in fluff news articles and on fringe, conspiracy-oriented websites. She couldn’t be more right.
But 2009 also had its share of poorly sourced, regurgitated press releases disguised as journalism, the raison d’être for our Ashley Award for Credulity in Science Journalism. The eponymous award is named after the hapless producer of Combating Autism from Within, a multi-part series aired on KOMU-TV in late 2007, noted for its daring combination of pseudoscientific claptrap, cheap voyeurism, cheesy production values, and nauseating self-congratulation.
The envelopes please.
Fox News is synonymous with bad journalism, and it is with no little shame that we reach for its low hanging fruit for the Worst Medical Reporting Ever Award. But we have to agree with Orac at Respectful Insolence who called this Fox 5 segment on the Desiree Jenning’s case hoax “the single worst example of medical reporting for 2009,” and possibly “the single worst example of medical reporting of the decade.”
Jennings was the Washington Redskins cheerleader who claimed that the H1N1 vaccine made her walk backwards. Since that claim by itself wasn’t absurd enough, she also claims she was cured by Dr. Rashid Buttar, a North Carolina alternative medical practitioner reviled by his profession, who allegedly removed the vaccine’s toxins from her body. The Fox News anchors reported the story with a straight face, and practically sneered at the skeptics who pointed out how unlikely it was that Jennings was vaccine injured. The case quickly became a cause celibré for vaccine rejectionist groups, and celebrity vectors Jenny McCarthy and Jim Carrey lent their support with promises of medical treatment for the disambulatory Miss Jennings. There was even a website where Jennings gave her fans updates on her miraculous recovery.
What Fox News didn’t tell us:
- A VAERS report, apparently belonging to Jennings, shows her symptoms were most likely psychogenic, and not due to dystonia as she claimed.
- Jenning’s doctor, Rashid Buttar, was charged with unprofessional conduct by his state medical board 18 months earlier.
- Jenning’s website, DesireeJennings.com, was taken down about a month after it was put up.
- Inside Edition’s coverage is even worse
- Talk radio loon and vaccine rejectionist Robert Scott Bell milked the Jenning’s case for all it was worth, interviewing Buttar several times.
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Two television stations share the Bungled Business Reporting Award for their uncritical interviews with an autism treatment clinic owner who was later raided and shut down for suspected insurance fraud. Austin’s Fox News affiliate KVET invited CARE Clinic founder, Kazuko Grace Curtin, onto its morning show for what sounds like an infomercial for quack medicine. At one point Curtin defines autism as “a multi-factorial bio-medical disorder with psychiatric symptoms,” a claim that went unchallenged. Tampa’s WTSP also fell for Curtin’s spiel, as the station focused on “a new business in the bay area that puts treatment, research and services for autistic children under one roof.” A phone call to a qualified physician or researcher would likely have revealed that CARE Clinics treatments are not evidence-based, that the research is questionable and most likely aimed at producing a desired result, and that the services included unreliable and unnecessary lab tests.
What they didn’t tell us:
- CARE Clinics billed for genetics testing that has never been shown to work.
- WTSP never followed up to let viewers know that an autism treatment clinic was raided and shut down for suspected insurance fraud
- The Fox News segment was fawning enough to be repurposed as a promotional video on Curtin’s website.
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Fox News is shaping up to be the Meryl Streep of bad reporting award winners, netting this year’s When Bad Things Happen to Good Sentences Award, for publishing the following line:
“. ..the rate of increase of autism disorders in children is 4 to 5 percent higher in boys than it is in girls.”
The reporter, Marrecca Fiore, should have written that the autism rate for boys is 4.5 times higher than it is for girls, but obviously became confused with she heard the phrase “rate of increase” used in an entirely different context. The result is a sciency-sounding mash up of words, much like the verbiage that causes reporters to assume scientists are at odds over whether vaccines cause autism, when in fact the matter has been settled for years.
What they didn’t tell us
- The rate of increase for Fox News’s descent into the seventh circle of journalism hell is 100 times greater than CNN’s.
- An anagram for Marrecca Fiore is Career Coma Fir
- Fiore quoted the director of the notorious anti-vaccine group SAFEMINDS saying “we’re not anti-vaccination”, which is like PETA saying “we are not anti-fur.”