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Careless reporting that won’t go away

July 10th, 2008 · 15 Comments · Careless sourcing

More toxic vaccine reporting, this time from the Action News Investigators (cue whooshing sound) at WXYZ in Detroit. Reporter Steve Wilson, who we are told has been following the vaccine story “from the start”, uncritically repeats a dozen spurious anti-vaccine talking points because, hey, real science is hard.

But before we get into Wilson’s report, let’s skip to the final 30 seconds of the video, when a well-coiffed Channel 7 anchor tells us:

“When it comes to children, parents should always be on the lookout, ask questions, and know what’s going on.”

We’ll come back to that in a moment.

If a reporter can’t get his facts straight, then he shouldn’t do the story. Better to stay silent and let more knowledgeable voices be heard. It’s one thing when the local wantwit is jabbering over his Blatz at Dar’s Bay View Inn, quite another when an “action investigator” tells 100,000-plus viewers that vaccines might cause autism, offering as evidence long-debunked urban myths, junk science, and celebrity endorsements. The difference is size of audience, and the audience’s trust in the speaker.

Of course, mistakes happen, as when an an overworked investigator type with a looming deadline and thin gruel for background, one who hasn’t been covering his topic “from the start”, stumbles over some technical issues and leaves a false impression. That’s when media outlets run “corrections”. If WXYZ owns up to all of Wilson’s stumbles, it will have to pre-empt an entire evening of network programming.

It’s specially important that misleading and inaccurate reporting is corrected when the topic relates to human health. The mainstream scientific community has seen no credible evidence that vaccines cause autism, yet the myth persists, as does the fear mongering that discourages parents from protecting their children against deadly infectious diseases. Media have a special obligation to present medical information in an accurate, clear manner, because…

“When it comes to children, parents should always be on the lookout, ask questions, and know what’s going on.”

For better or worse, some parents turn to local news celebrities to “know what’s going on.” Local news celebrities know this.

So what’s going on in the anti-vaccine movement? A clue to the ensuing awfulness of Wilson’s report comes in the first few sentences:

It’s the controversy that won’t go away. Is the skyrocketing rate of Autism (sic) in children due in any way to the mercury long contained in childhood vaccines? It’s an issue our chief investigative reporter Steve Wilson has stayed with from the start…and Steve will science ever answer this one?

This is what journalists call the “lead”. It tells the “news consumer” the gist of the story, including its rationale. A really great lead will also hook the reader, enticing her to read on. Wilson’s lead is self-prophecy – the controversy won’t go away because WXYZ is here to make sure it doesn’t. There are plenty of reasons why a station should cover vaccines – doing it to hear yourself talk is not one of them.

Then the anchor sinks the hook with a question: “Steve, will science ever answer this one?” I have another question – “Steve, if you knew the first thing about science, then you would know better than to include that question in your script – right?” As a wise old professor once said “If you’re looking for information, study science; if you’re looking for truth, study philosophy.” Science, the omniscent spirit summoned by vapid news anchors, has spoken: there is no known connection between vaccines and autism. No overwhelming evidence, no intriguing clues. Just anecdotes, and bad science, and more anecdotes, and misinformed celebrities.

Wilson’s token skeptic is Dr. Renee Jenkins, president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, who sleepily tells us “I don’t think anybody is saying you want to inject mercury.” “Why would I allow it to happen?” asked Wilson off camera. “Well, for routine vaccinations, we don’t allow it to happen,” is Dr. Jenkins’ sensible reply.

What Wilson, who has been following vaccines since he overhead wise old Dr. Jenner talking about cowpox over a glass of buttermilk, fails to mention is that most children born since 2002 will never receive a thimerosal containing vaccine (TCV) before the age of three. In fact, children born in the 90s were exposed to far more antigens, thimerosal, and Hootie and the Blowfish lyrics than today’s five year olds. So much for the vaccine-autism connection. But our intrepid action news investigator won’t let real evidence get in the way of a scary story, so he digs deep into his “Vaccines/Autism” file and repeats the biggest myths of all. PalMd and Orac weigh in.

Wilson tells us, with no attribution or context, that children are still at risk of autism because there’s still mercury in some vaccines “…there’s still as much as ever in 11 vaccines including most flu vaccines injected into pregnant women and kids, and some of them younger than 9 get two doses in a season,” he says. “And also high levels of mercury from Thimerosal in tetanus shots and the boosters routinely injected into 11-year-olds…and also in some meningitis and diphtheria-tetanus formulas, too. ”

Context would help. Prior to 2000, about 98 percent of children born in the US received at least one TCV before the age of three. Today, less than 30 percent do. If thimerosal caused autism, and less children were exposed to thimerosal, then wouldn’t we expect to see a decline in autism?

Not content with context-free accusations, Wilson tells us that a congressional committee that studied the matter has already concluded: “Thimerosal…is directly related to the Autism epidemic.” A Congressional investigation is not the same as a scientific study. Guess they don’t teach that in hot-shot investigator school.

Of course no lame vaccine news coverage is complete without citing the UPI “study” which shows that the Lancaster County Amish don’t vaccinate, and autism is rare in that community. I was waiting for this one. The “Amish Anomaly” canard comes from Dan Olmsted, an ex-UPI reporter who didn’t bother to call or visit the Clinic of Special Children in Strasburg, PA, until after his story ran. Not only do the Amish vaccinate, but the clinic treats kids who show symptoms of autism.

I hope WXYZ makes an honest effort to correct the many errors in this story, and then train its crack investigative skills on the untold story of autism – the medical fraud that accompanies promises of autism recovery – chelation, hyperbaric oxygen therapy, special diets, infrared detox booths. The NIH is again proposing a clinical study to settle once and for all whether chelation cures autism. There is no evidence that it does, and no reason to believe it would. But the autism debates long ago transcended the field of science, so now we have politicians and Hollywood celebrities telling us what is real. Doesn’t that sound like a better story?



15 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Jim // Jul 10, 2008 at 1:10 pm

    From another point of view, our friends and family believe it was a very well investigated “story” and it put forth the truth with common sense. We are thrilled the topic keeps coming up and is being discussed.

  • 2 Patrick // Jul 10, 2008 at 1:32 pm

    I would like to see a specific reference to this alleged congressional study.

    And it appears that this is another graduate of the KORD school of sensational versus factual journalism.

    (If one has truly been following for at least 2 years, one might recognize the last name initials for some Blatant misreporters of the period as the acronym for the pseudo journalism school, perhaps one day I will elaborate, but I think I have them in the order of their relative contributions by level of severity.)

  • 3 Sullivan // Jul 10, 2008 at 4:27 pm

    It’s only July, but we may have a winner for this years “Ashley”. You know, the award for bad autism TV Journalism.

    Patrick–the congressional “study” is a report submitted to the congressional record by Dan Burton.

    The quote, by the way, is wrong. The original quote was that autism

    “Thimerosal used as a preservative in vaccines
    in likely related to the autism epidemic.”

    “likely related” changed to “directly related”. As near as I can tell, this happened when R. Kennedy wrote his piece, Deadly Immunity.

  • 4 HCN // Jul 10, 2008 at 4:52 pm

    Mr. Wilson revealed on of his main sources of science was Generation Rescue:

  • 5 autblog // Jul 10, 2008 at 5:59 pm

    Jim, the question of how well Mr. Wilson investigated his story is not a mere judgment call as you suggest. The story makes blatantly false assertions, and demonstrates a lack of understand of how science works. This is pure propaganda, and not terribly convincing.

  • 6 Eh Nonymous // Jul 10, 2008 at 8:42 pm

    HCN, you got me! You’re entirely right. Something I just can’t dispute. I’m just a maroon. Some days I’m a teal but today, yes indeed, I AM a maroon.

    Posted by: Steve Wilson WXYZ-TV Detroit | July 10, 2008 6:20 PM

    A maroon buffoon.

  • 7 Phil Schwarz // Jul 10, 2008 at 9:17 pm

    So what should we call the corollary to Scopie’s Law, that applies when an argument invokes the Generation Rescue website?

  • 8 HCN // Jul 10, 2008 at 9:23 pm

    I think calling it Orac’s corollary would be appropriate since Handley squatted on his Oraknows domain name (and a few others, but Orac is a better name fit to Scopie).

  • 9 HCN // Jul 10, 2008 at 9:24 pm

    aagh… Oracknows website, sigh… the story here;

  • 10 HCN // Jul 10, 2008 at 9:55 pm

    also, may I add… it is almost unAmerican to not recognize a Bugs Bunny catch phrase!

    What a maroon… what an ignoramus!

  • 11 Autism Blog - WXYZ and bad “investigative” reporting | Left Brain/Right Brain // Jul 11, 2008 at 12:01 am

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  • 12 Patrick // Jul 11, 2008 at 11:23 am

    Oh, That political opinion peice by Dan Burton, Now I Get It. (Still would be nice if people making claims could link or biblio to their supportive documents!)

  • 13 Science-Based Medicine » When “investigative reporting” becomes anti-vaccine propaganda // Jul 14, 2008 at 6:01 am

    [...] Careless reporting that won’t go away [...]

  • 14 Liz Ditz // Jul 14, 2008 at 11:49 am

    Please be sure to read David Gorski’s Science-Based Medicine post on Wilson’s inaccurate, irresponsible “Investigative Report”

    You may, if you wish, craft a letter of your own to send to the station manager,

    Bob Sliva
    Vice President/General Manager
    20777 West Ten Mile Road
    Southfield, MI 48037

  • 15 Bookmarks about Autism // Aug 3, 2008 at 8:30 am

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