False balance is the scourge of science reporting, and in The Vaccine Wars, we see how it’s possible to represent both sides without misleading viewers. The Frontline documentary, which first aired Tuesday, devotes about 60% of its time to the researchers and experts who are best qualified to speak. That leaves about 22 minutes for vaccine rejectionists to convince viewers how misguided and poorly informed they truly are. It was more than enough.
But what the reality-based community sees as a virtue is also the biggest complaint that anti-vaccine activists have about the show – that writer/producer Jon Palfreman ignored their “experts”, and falsely portrayed the story as scientists versus parents. “Where are the doctors and scientists who support our community and support the idea that vaccines may be a trigger for autism?” opined Jenny McCarthy the very next day in Huffington Post, “In Frontline’s world, they don’t exist.”
McCarthy’s science adviser, Dr. Jay Gordon chimed in: “You interviewed me, you spent hours with Dr. Robert Sears of the deservedly-illustrious Sears family and you spoke to other doctors who support parents in their desire to find out what went wrong and why it’s going wrong and what we might do to prevent this true epidemic.” Gordon reportedly sat at McCarthy’s side during her interview, slightly out of frame. His absence was both poignant and illuminating.
Reading the breathless complaints from McCarthy and others of her angry mob reminded me of something that jazz great Miles Davis once said: “Don’t play what’s there. Play what’s not there.”
With enough practice, most of us can keep a beat or carry a tune, but it takes an artist to play what isn’t there. The silence that bookends a note reveals as much, if not more, than the sound that you hear, the difference between noise and music. For a writer, recognizing what does and does not belong is the difference between stenography and journalism. Only a flack cares about including every voice in equal measure, with no regards for what is being said. To truly inform, some voices are best unheard.
It’s not always about what you put in. It’s also about what you leave out.