Autism News Beat

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What’s wrong with telling a story?

October 11th, 2007 · 5 Comments · Critical thinking, Narrative

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.

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5 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Ms. Clark // Oct 11, 2007 at 7:49 pm

    The general public has almost no concept of what “public health” is, and so can’t imagine what would be wrong with making unsupported negative statements about vaccines for fun, for drama, and/or for profit.

    Vaccines aren’t the only aspect of public health, but a lot of the other aspects are things like not letting water stand in a bucket in your yard to breed disease carrying mosquitos and not smoking… washing hand, covering your mouth when you cough… but vaccines are different and while there probably aren’t any paranoid psychotics who will rant about the need to cough in public places with nothing covering one’s mouth, there certainly ARE paranoid psychotics (literally) and others who are just fearful of Big Government and Big Pharma who will repeat absolute falsehoods about vaccines in order to dissuade people from trusting them in the least.

    The amount of bad information about vaccines out there is massive and we don’t need the media to be helping to disinform the public. Which is not to say that they should only say good things about vaccines or any other drug, but they should TRY to get at the facts and not spread lies about vaccines because the lies are shocking and scary and they sell papers and get people to tune in to TV shows.

  • 2 Schwartz // Oct 11, 2007 at 11:59 pm

    Already poor reporting.

    “Autism is not caused by vaccines. ”

    “First, autism is best understood as a genetic disorder, and will remain so until credible evidence comes to light that it is something else. ”

    Funny that you didn’t notice the contradiction. You can’t prove it’s genetics, and you wisely caveat your second statement. Contrast that to the first statement issued as if it were fact. Unfortunately, it is not a factual statement since you can’t prove it through science.

    “There is currently no accepted scientific evidence to show that Autism is caused by vaccines.”

    Now that would be a much more correct wording. If you want scientific credibility, you should be consistent, scientifc and unbiased.

  • 3 Joseph // Oct 12, 2007 at 7:09 pm

    Strictly speaking “Autism is not caused by vaccines” is not a statement that could ever be made. It’s impossible to prove that autism is never caused by vaccines. However, the evidence strongly suggests that it is not.

    And it’s true that there are environmental factors that are recognized as causal. But to put it in perspective, the biggest risk factor I’ve ever encountered is having an autistic sibbling.

    ed. Thanks for keeping me honest, Joseph. I’ve made the edit.

  • 4 isles // Oct 12, 2007 at 9:08 pm

    A story that’s emotional and therefore interesting inevitably has an effect on the reader – unfortunately, when that story is about a parent who believes his or her child was made autistic by vaccines, the effect is likely to be other parents choosing not to vaccinate their own children, which may result in *real* pain, not just the empathetic pain of reading about the original parent’s anguish. It’s too bad reporters who don’t get this aren’t subject to a little pain themselves. Words can cause harm.

  • 5 LAM // Oct 16, 2007 at 9:56 pm

    Just came across this blog, and I’m very interested in it, looking forward to reading your other entries. I applaud this entry. I agree with you & one who commented about the ripple effect such a story has, and that throwing vaccine fear & hype into the emotional mix of such a story is irresponsible.

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