How skeptical can a reporter be while interviewing someone who is still grieving the loss of the perfect child? The question crossed my mind after reading Mary Lou Aguirre’s interview with Barbara Coppo, author of The Boy in the Window: A Journey Through an Unexpected Tragedy (Morgan James Publishing, $26.95), which appeared this week’s Fresno Bee.
Coppo’s 400-page memoire of raising her 29-year-old son, Kenny, is filled with the heartache and frustration worthy of the genre. “There are no real kisses or hugs,” she writes. “But when inclined, Kenny will quickly lower his head toward your shoulder, which may include a brief touch of his hand, too.”
OK, since I’m trying to keep this blog evidence-based, I can’t address the empirical basis of real hugs and kisses. I think it’s sad when a mother can’t find joy in her son’s differences, but that’s for another entry.
But then there’s this:
“There are so many times I wonder about the man he would have turned out to be had it not been for the devastation he suffered from the vaccination when he was a baby,” Barbara writes.
There is, of course, no credible reason to link vaccines and autism. I asked Aguirre why she included that line in her story without a line of rebuttal.
“In the book, it’s her opinion that mercury caused her son’s autism. It’s part of her story, and I felt like a had to include it. I didn’t want to belabor the point, but didn’t want to leave it out,” she said. “What is the harm in telling someone’s story?”
Reporters love an emotional story. So do readers. Raising a severely disabled, non-verbal child into adulthood is a terrific human interest story and needs to be told.
But the story also needs to be understood.
Autism is not caused by vaccines. There’s no good reason to blame vaccines for autism, and no parent needs feel guilt or anger over their child’s condition. Any reporter wading into an emotional interview with a grieving parent is best to keep a few basic facts in mind.
First, autism is best understood as a genetic disorder, and will remain so until credible evidence comes to light that it is something else. The reasons why some people believe otherwise are varied, and you can read about some of those reasons here, here, and here.
Second, misinformation about vaccines is dangerous. Vaccinations protect us from disease epidemics that once killed millions, and they could return if enough parents are too scared to have their children vaccinated. Indeed, unwarranted concerns over the safety of the MMR is blamed for a measles outbreak in the UK last year, and several deaths.
Finally, not every source can be trusted. That’s why it’s important to ask “What is the evidence?”, even when the source is a grieving mother who poured her heart into a 400-page best seller.