Any journalist will tell you that the ickiest feeling in all the universe – far worse than just getting scooped -- is making a flat-out factual error. And the more pertinent it is to the point of the story, the more you want to run and hide.
Mistakes? I’ve made a few, especially in my younger and more vulnerable years at daily papers, where time pressure, lack of experience and the wide range of assignments can lead to disaster. One beaut was the time I was filling in for the courthouse reporter when the new tax assessment was announced for our Illinois county. Relying on my own calculations (bad idea!), I wrote the standard “taxes are rising yet again” story.
The next day I got a call from the county assessor who said, “Dan, have you ever heard of something called the multiplier?” I confessed I hadn’t, and he went on to tell me that when this obscure (to me) number was factored in, taxes actually went down for the first time in, oh, a million years.That led to a front-page banner headline and story the next day, which the editor artfully reconciled with mine the day before with a phrase like “based on new information, it turns out taxes are actually headed down next year, not up.” Later he told me he thought this was the first time in the paper’s history that the “correction” was actually bigger than the original story.
So, moral of story – don’t throw stones, we all make mistakes. But try really, really hard to get it right, and if possible assign the story to someone who really understands it. And if you get it wrong, fix it in a way that is proportional to the error.
Therefore I’m not going to get all snarly with Paul Offit and The New York Times, but I am going to argue that the mistakes in that article, only partially corrected on Wednesday, should never have made it into the paper of record. They go to the heart of the story and call into question its basic premise, and the paper owes its subscribers (I’m one) a more thorough revisiting of the article’s problems.
David Kirby did a nice job of eviscerating the Offit piece on Huffington Post HERE. He quotes Offit thusly on how the vaccine court came up with the wacky idea that vaccines triggered Hannah Poling’s autistic regression: "The answer is wrapped up in the nature of the unusual court where the Poling case was heard." As David notes: “This case was never heard in any court at all. The Poling case was conceded by US Department of Health and Human Services medical personnel, well before it could become a publicly accessible and publicly heard ‘test’ case. It was a medical concession, not a legal decision. Dr. Offit and the New York Times know this.” And that’s just for starters.
He sent that to The Times, and the paper has a very limited correction today about an expert submitting a written affadavit rather than testifying in court. I don’t think they addressed the more fundamental misunderstanding of the proceeding – and thus the flawed premise that the court itself is the problem -- at all.
There is a deeper problem at the Times, as everyone knows – it has enshrined the view that thimerosal is not related to autism, a point made explicit by its public editor just before the concession in the Poling case -- which was to be a thimerosal test case -- hit the news (again thanks to David). That was bad timing by the public editor and, frankly, bad judgment. Official bias like that makes it easier to be less attentive to the facts when you think the whole thing is a time-wasting bag of rubbish.
Speaking of facts, CNN flubs one today. And again, it’s the kind of goof that makes you wonder about their basic grasp of the material. In a reasonably good piece on Michelle Cedillo and her family, CNN says: “They believe the MMR vaccine, combined with a mercury-containing preservative found in that and other vaccines at the time, drastically altered the course of their daughter's development.”
No, no, no! Thimerosal was never in the MMR! Never ever ever! Then there is this sloppily worded sentence: “Childhood vaccines no longer contain thimerosal, though it remains in some flu shots.”
Guys – flu shots ARE childhood vaccines and thimerosal is in almost ALL of them. Scribble this down and tape it to your computer.
What bothers me most about all these mistakes is they suggest that whoever writes and edits them is not, to say the least, a subject matter expert. In the CNN story, for example, if the writer or editor knew what thimerosal does – kill microbes – they would know it could NOT be in the MMR because it would kill the live viruses. (And they might wonder about what else it kills, like immune and brain cells.)
They get the facts wrong, they get the nuances wrong – they just plain get the story wrong, time after time after time. I’ve said before that the big wealthy news outlets – the networks, the big papers, the newsweeklies – need to create an autism beat, and they need editors to edit this stuff who know what they’re talking about. You can’t just dispatch someone to cover autism like it’s a spectacular train wreck (which of course it is, metaphorically speaking). You’ve got to stick with it, get it right, and fix it fully when you get it wrong. You’ve got to have a lot more autism awareness, and not just on April 2.
To bring it back home, you’ve got to know what the multiplier is or you’re going to look like a damn fool.
Dan Olmsted is Editor of Age of Autism