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« WORLD AUTISM DAY: LARRY KING LIVE | Main | A LITTLE PERSPECTIVE »

ON WORLD AUTISM DAY: A PLEA FOR BETTER JOURNALISM

Dewey_winsBY DAN OLMSTED

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.

Ick.

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

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i thank CNN for their full day of coverage. They may not have gotten it perfect, but you could see how much effort went into their coverage. I think just like america -there are those within CNN that probably don't believe vaccines have anything to do with Autism--and then there are those that most certainly believe it. CNN opened the door for the debate. And while they may have had experts that disagreed with the Pollings or Jenny McCarthy...they weren't afraid to go there. Thank you CNN for making history and providing a voice to those that used to be voiceless

remember this one?

http://cjrarchives.org/issues/2005/6/schulman.asp

"A reporter for a major media outlet, who did not want to be identified for fear of retribution, told me that covering the thimerosal controversy had been nearly “career-ending” and described butting heads with superiors who believed that the reporter’s coverage — in treating the issue as a two-sided debate — legitimized a crackpot theory and risked influencing parents to stop vaccinating their children or to seek out experimental treatments for their autistic sons and daughters."

"career-ending" - no pressure or bias there, right?

the "mistakes" in some of these articles are not "accidents"

just like the line between news and entertainment has all but vanished in mainstream media outlets, so has the distinction between Doctor and Spin-Doctor.

Bouncing Bosons:

"One more thing: when did flu shots became a childhood vaccine? I have received all my vaccines (born in 84), and so did my much younger brother (born in '94). Neither of us have ever had a flu shot."

I just copied this from the American Academy of Pediatrics website...sounds to me like a recommended childhood vaccine:

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends annual influenza immunization for all children with high-risk conditions who are 6 months and older, for all healthy children ages 6 through 59 months, for all household contacts and out-of-home caregivers of children with high-risk conditions and of healthy children younger than 5 years, and for all health care professionals.

Previously unimmunized children who are at least 6 months of age but younger than 9 years should receive 2 doses of influenza vaccine, given one month apart, beginning as soon as possible on the basis of local availability during the influenza season. If children in this cohort received only 1 dose for the first time in the previous season, it is recommended that 2 doses be administered in the current season.

A child who then also fails to receive 2 doses the next year should be given only 1 dose per year from that point on.

A sacred cow will not protect the herd.

"And most telling of all, we aren't hearing
about all the studies and experts showing a link."

[Citation Needed]


Seriously, there has yet to be any study showing a link that is reproducible and stands up to scrutiny. The sad fact is that the clamoring parents are falling into the "post hoc ergo propter hoc" fallacy. Just because their children regressed after getting vaccinated does not necessarily mean that the vaccines caused it. It indeed does suggest looking into vaccines as a possible cause, but this has already been done, and the constant demand for more money to be dumped into this dead end is, in the end, harmful to the patients, because it means more money devoted away from investigating other possible causes (genetics, etc...).

The most compelling evidence yet presented for a vaccination-autism link is the timing involved. Unfortunately, all the timing really tells us is "autism tends to begin presenting at the same age that this, that, or the other vaccine is generally administered." There just isn't enough evidence to draw any conclusion stronger than that.

I'm not trying to troll here or anything, I'm just saying that a claim as strong as "vaccines cause autism" naturally requires some strong evidence to back it up, and it just hasn't been presented yet. Until it is presented, it would be much more fruitful to diligently investigate many possibilities, rather than assuming someone (who? the CDC? "big pharma"?) is trying to keep a vaccine link down.

I also want to point out that it's dangerous to denounce vaccines on so little evidence, since we don't know for sure that there is a danger to being vaccinated, but we do know for sure that there is a danger to NOT being vaccinated. Even for those around the unvaccinated person who was vaccinated. Look up the concept of "herd immunity" for an explanation.


One more thing: when did flu shots became a childhood vaccine? I have received all my vaccines (born in 84), and so did my much younger brother (born in '94). Neither of us have ever had a flu shot.

Thank you,Dan again and again, for getting it right, and encouraging your colleagues to do the same. I can't tell you what it means to me, and so many other parents, to have your assistance in bringing the truth to light. I have watched many parents fall apart in their efforts to be heard. I can't count the times I have sat at a dinner table filled with parents of autistic children, with the primary topic of the conversation being "Why won't they listen to us? How do we get them to listen to us?" You have been a driving force in keeping this story out there, and making sure "they" get it right.

I have to say, I thought the Polings were very gracious on Larry King Live, as they mentioned the misinformation that was being circulated, but did not specifically call out Paul Offit or the NYT. I don't think I could have handled the matter with such tact. Paul Offit got it all wrong in his editorial, and the NYT needs to set the record straight.

Keep up the excellent work, Dan.

I watched the intro that CNN put together with all their employees with autistic kids. They did a great job pointing out that it was they, as parents of autistic kids, that pushed CNN to have an all day discussion to make sure people are more aware of the hardhips of autism. For them, I am truly grateful.

I have not been able to follow every story, but the main message remains clear - CNN does not want to come out looking like they support in any way a link to vaccines.

I think the CNN employees may be in a position similar to UK docs who really want to support Wakefield, but are afraid of reprocussions, or maybe like all those wonderful moms and dads at the CDC who supposedly support Julie G all the way.......

I wonder how many of them left out the vcaccine link in their stories, or do not even dare whisper it around the water cooler, in fear of losing their jobs....

Just thinking out loud...

Tim

There is no mystery to AUTISM! The only mystery to all parents with Children affected by Autism is why won't the CDC, FDA and AAP just listen to us. The AAP has just mentioned that they will try and work with us but didn't "Autism Speaks" say that as well? Let's not lose our focus here when we are so close to getting the truth out in the open. Every organization will say "We are working with the parents to try and get a better understanding as to what they want us to do" but in the process they will do nothing and drag this out for years. As long as we stay focused and continue to smack down with the hammer of truth out on every organization we can make this phony mystery go away. We know what Autism is and so do they.

The definition of Autism...."To blatantly cover up an unprecedented disaster by denying all facts of its causation and to collusively place the blame on its origin." - Elucidatus

"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."

Dan you seem to be missing the point. The point being that the whole purpose of this exercise is to keep getting it wrong - time after time after time - so that it achieves the objective of confusing the heck out of everyone, so that, at the end of the day NOBODY has the story right. Because, if someone outside of the AoA DID get it right, a bunch of people who want EVERYONE to get it wrong, would be in BIG, BIG trouble. Now we don't want THAT to happen, do we?

I'm watching CNN addressing the autism epidemic as if autism is a mysterious disorder that we just can't figure
out. No matter how many times parents cite the vaccines their children received before regression into
autism, it isn't a factor. Paul Offit is featured to trash the claim. They tell us mercury was removed
years ago and that rates are still going up and that mercury is only in "some" flu vaccines. The vaccine
controversy is reduced to just a focus on the mercury issue. And most telling of all, we aren't hearing
about all the studies and experts showing a link.

At the end of the day, CNN will feel good about "covering" autism but autism will still be a mystery.

Anne Dachel

Hear, hear! Thank you for discussing not only reporter error, which happens in haste, but also the institutional bias that takes time to develop within an editorial staff.

Too often media content managers anoint one person as "the expert," which allows them to abrogate responsibility for personal knowledge of a topic. But that centrality propagates misinformation when the same incorrect bullet point is replicated repeatedly for expediency by other media outlets downstream.

At the Minneapolis Star Tribune, which in recent years has made one biased attempt to investigate vaccine safety, a health reporter has a family member involved in vaccine epidemiology. It's reasonable to assume that person is used as a writing reference, and acts as an information filter.

It behooves vaccine safety advocates to work with media gatekeepers, but when necessary, work around them as well.

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