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A tidal wave of misinformation at WTAE

January 26th, 2010 · 3 Comments · Easy marks, Miseducation

“The numbers are staggering,” says WTAE reporter Michelle Wright as she kicks off  the first of five news reports on autism. What’s truly staggering is how the Pittsburgh ABC affiliate news department could get the numbers so wrong.

“A few weeks ago, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released new statistics showing that 1 in 110 children will be diagnosed with autism,” says Wright, trying hard to evoke anxiety and fear. “Ten years ago the numbers were one in 500. Fifteen years ago it was one in 10,000.”


The CDC, a source Wright has no problem quoting, found the rate of autism spectrum disorders among 8-year-old children in 2000 totaled 1 in 153. That’s not even close to 1:500.

As for an autism rate of 1:10,000, that’s a line of agit prop taken directly from a Feb., 2008 USA Today display ad paid for by nursing school drop out  Jenny McCarthy and her comedian boyfriend, Jim Carrey.  Epidemiologists, the ones who stayed in school and spend their careers in this field, tell us the rate of Kanner’s autism, generally regarded as the most severe form of the disorder, was about 5:10,000 40-50 years ago. If Wright was correct, then the rate of autism actually declined between 1980 and 1995. Except she isn’t.

But this is TV news, where the assumed veracity of a claim is directly proportional to the size of the smile it is delivered with. And so for the next four nights WTAE told us over and over that a “tidal wave” of adults needing care was bearing down on our sleepy village, each and every one costing $3.2 million for a lifetime of care.

The series went downhill from there.  Tuesday’s report led off with this lively bit of banter between the news anchors and Wright:

News anchor:     “This individual topic is so controversial”
Wright:                 “Very controversial.”

Why is it controversial? Because WTAE says it is! Wright doesn’t put it this way. Instead she goes for the false balance that derails much of what passes for autism coverage. So we hear a mother tell us her child’s fever spiked to 107 degrees only 45 minutes after receiving a vaccine – “and within a week he lost verbalization, eye contact – he began to spin and flap, and grow more distant.” Then comes the token scientists who tell us there is no evidence for an association.

Then we heard from more people telling us how awful autism is. Wright ended the segment with another dire prediction:

“Think about this: 54% of cases of autism are elementary age school children, so in the coming years there will be a tidal wave of individuals needing services.”

Wright’s case rests on the unproven premise that the true prevalence of autism is climbing, you know, from 1:10,000 only 15 years ago to 1:110 today. There’s no effort to explain the apples to oranges comparison of a made-up number that only relates to a small percentage of ASDs to a survey that counts all five spectrum disorders. And no mention of the fact that autism is a development disorder, which means that Wright’s “elementary school age children” continue to grow, learn, adapt and mature, which is to say “develop”, and that not all will need a lifetime of platinum-class care. Better to scare the bejeebers out of the viewers, and keep their fingers off the remote, than to traffic in boring facts, and treat autistic people with the respect they deserve.

On Wednesday, Wright reported on the cost of providing care, and she repeated the number – $3.2 million over a lifetime for a person with autism. She did not say that the estimate comes from a 2006 Harvard University School of Public Health that counts direct and indirect costs, including lost productivity and lost wages for parents. Nor did Wright compare the figure to the cost of lifetime care for other conditions, such as Alzheimer’s ($91 billion); mental retardation ($51 billion); or anxiety ($47 billion). Hell, Americans spend $23 billion annually on their pets – where is the outrage!

After hearing from some University of Pittsburgh Medical Center researchers, viewers are told that “early diagnosis is important to improve treatment outcomes. Doctors said the longer you wait, the harder it is to correct some of the problems of autism.” True statement, but the implications apparently escaped Wright – the more parents who actively seek out a diagnosis for their children, the higher the rate of autism climbs, which strongly suggests an unknown but substantial number of undiagnosed cases yet to be uncovered. In fact, the latest CDC survey revealed that 23% of the children counted as autistic had been undiagnosed, or misdiagnosed, before they were screened for the survey. As LBRB blogger Sullivan puts it:

That’s worth repeating—about 23% of 8 year olds identified as autistic were mislabeled as non-autistic by their schools, parents and doctors. That’s an interesting fact for those who claim that autism is easily identified.

Thursday’s report kicked off with the well-traveled urban myth that “Divorce rates are high among couples with autistic children.”  How high? Wright doesn’t say, but her comment echoes the Queen of Daytime Television, Oprah Winfrey, who once said:

“The stress of raising an autistic child also takes a toll on many marriages. Autism Speaks, the nation’s largest autism advocacy organization, reports that the divorce rate within the autism community is staggering. According to their research, 80 percent of all marriages end.”

Make that 100% of marriages end. The question is, how many end in divorce? Many have tried, and none have succeeded, to answer that question with hard evidence – the very definition of a myth.

The week ended not with a bang, but another tidal wave reference. The topic was the lack of services for adults with autism, which is a real problem. But again, why frame the story in terms of a human tsunami of spinning, flapping adults who will drain the national treasury and antagonize their aging parents?

And what local TV news series is complete without the self-congratulatory banter to close out the segment.

“Michelle, it’s been a revealing and remarkable week with your series,” says the news anchor.

“It’s been so educational and enlightening,” says Wright.



3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Socrates // Jan 26, 2010 at 4:44 pm

    You mean she read an Autism Speaks press release and padded it out to a week’s worth of slots.

    We’ve just got to get our press releases into their hands too…

    ASAN would be a good vehicle but they need the funds to do it. And Big funds too.

  • 2 Kent Adams // Jan 26, 2010 at 6:35 pm

    It wouldn’t matter if she got everything correct, none of this helps autistic people, its just an interesting thing to write about. Otherwise, nothing here to help autistic people.

  • 3 David N. Brown // Jan 27, 2010 at 11:23 am

    This reminds me of a small uproar over a newscaster who reported that a .50 BMG round could penetrate a T72 tank. As critics pointed out, the smallest round that can penetrate any part of that vehicle is a 20 mm cannon shell.

    An additional comment: I don’t like the phrase “tidal wave”, even in colloquial contexts. The phenomenon is caused by earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, not tides. “Tsunami” is the term I would prefer for all occasions. Apparently, the newscaster puts as little effort into geology as into autism. Finally, let’s all be glad the poor people in Haiti were at least spared a tsunami.

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