There are a couple of things I’ve read over the years about journalism that have become what I hope are guiding principles for me (and our humble site here at AOA). The first comes from a book published by a group called Investigative Reporters and Editors. I don’t have it any more, but I remember what it said. Talking about covering crime -- a basic journalism job; every cub reporter does a tour at the “cop shop” -- the book offered the novel idea that you don’t have to just stand back and report on what the police are doing to solve the latest homicide. You can try to solve it yourself.
This may sound all Hardy Boys, but the point was simply that there is no journalism statute against being curious about the facts at hand and pursuing them on your own. Doubtless, no one would advise showing up in the worst part of town in the middle of the night to accuse someone of murder, but the point has real validity. For example, students at Northwestern University reviewed death penalty cases and found several where the “evidence” did not stand up. As a result, the then-governor of Illinois (now in prison himself, alas) put a moratorium on the death penalty. Real people’s lives were really saved. (Interesting it was students who did this, isn’t it?)
The other point that seems fundamental to me is contained in a book called The Elements of Journalism, where the authors -- Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel -- say that the responsibilities of journalists go way beyond “objectivity.” Clearly, stenographically reporting the facts of a confusing situation -- say, a car accident no one witnessed in which both drivers blame the other -- is warranted. But the deeper job of journalism, as a constitutionally protected enterprise fundamental to democracy, is to figure out, and tell, the truth.
“The essence of journalism is a discipline of verification,” Kovach and Rosenstiel write. “In the end, the discipline of verification is what separates journalism from entertainment, propaganda, fiction, or art.” And what is this discipline of verification? It has five elements, the fourth of which is this: “Rely on your own original reporting.” The book in fact cites David Protess, the Northwestern professor who led the death row cases work. “Among the lessons: Don’t rely on officials or news accounts. Get as close as you can to primary sources. Be systematic. Corroborate.”
OK, enough theory. Here’s the point: In practice, these core principles are ignored every day in the mainstream media and it is costing our country dearly. One of the costs is the continued rise of autism and other chronic childhood disorders -- a generation of sick children, in other words -- and the ongoing cluelessness about what’s causing it -- even about whether it’s really rising.
Let’s consider two of my least favorite news outlets and watch this failure in action. First up: ABC and Dr. Timothy Johnson. Recently, he did a Good Morning America piece on how Rochester, Minn., has developed a way to coordinate treatment for children with asthma. It was OK, although a bit obvious -- work with the school nurse, know the early warning signs, etc. The report acknowledged an “epidemic” of asthma in children. When it was over, Diane Sawyer cut to the core question the report never mentioned:
“And they don’t know why they’re having so much asthma here?” she asked Dr. Tim.
“No,” he replied, “they’re trying to figure that out. That’s where the famous Mayo Clinic is and they’ll probably figure it out.”
Ah yes. The Mayo Clinic. They’ll probably figure it out. They’re famous. They’re doctors. This is not what I’d call journalism’s “discipline of verification.” This is relying “on officials or news accounts.” And that’s never a good idea. Why not? Well, let’s just say theoretically that doctors are CAUSING all or a big part of the asthma epidemic, by over-vaccinating, over-antibioti-cizing and overdoing medication in general, and then failing or refusing to make the obvious connection. Sad to say, being a doctor -- on TV or at the Mayo Clinic -- may be a conflict of interest when it comes to trying to figure out kids’ health problems.
At least Dr. Tim calls asthma an epidemic. You’d never even get that far with autism -- not from Dr. Tim and especially not from the Mayo Clinic. Mayo doctors studied the rise in autism diagnoses in Olmsted County, Minn, (yes, I know, same name -- which ABC misspelled Olmstead), and concluded: “The incidence of research-identified autism increased in Olmsted County from 1976 to 1997, with the increase occurring among young children after the introduction of broader, more precise diagnostic criteria, increased availability of services, and increased awareness of autism. Although it is possible that unidentified environmental factors have contributed to an increase in autism, the timing of the increase suggests that it may be due to improved awareness, changes in diagnostic criteria, and availability of services, leading to identification of previously unrecognized young children with autism.”
The article is full of citations to people like Fombonne, Wing, Hviid and Madsen (wrong, wrong, wrong and wrong again). And it once again puts the investigative tools in the hands of those who may have caused a very real epidemic of autism with their out-of-control vaccine increase over the period studied. But of course, they’re the Mayo Clinic. They’re famous. They’ll figure it out.
In the unlikely event they need help, they should check out this AOA post by Editor at Large Mark Blaxill "Earlier Vaccination Causes Asthma"):
Lost amidst all the furor over the role of vaccines in autism has been the role that vaccine administration plays in causing other chronic childhood diseases like asthma and juvenile diabetes. But the evidence that vaccine administration, especially early administration of DPT vaccine, increases the risk of developing asthma … is compelling. If you look at the totality of the published evidence the picture is admittedly somewhat mixed, but for anyone with an open mind and a critical eye, the argument for a strong role for vaccines as a cause of asthma is persuasive.
On Monday, The New York Times did its duty to the epidemic deniers with a story titled “An Outbreak of Autism, Or a Statistical Fluke?” It was about the troubling prevalence of autism in the children of Somali immigrants in Minneapolis (what is it about Minnesota?*). The story had the usual human-interest lede of which I’m thoroughly tired -- “Ayub Abdi is a cute 5-year-old with a smile that might be called shy if not for the empty look in his eyes.” -- and the article took the standard “objective” but empty look at both sides:
“Autism is terrifying the community of Somali immigrants in Minneapolis, and some pediatricians and educators have joined parents in raising the alarm. But public health experts say it is hard to tell whether the apparent surge of cases is an actual outbreak, with a cause that can be addressed, or just a statistical fluke.” And you’ve got to love this: “Since the cause of autism is unknown, the authorities in Minnesota say it is hard to know even what to investigate.”
Ah yes, The Formula: “relying on officials,” a/k/a “the authorities” as the Times obeisantly calls big shots; stipulating that the matter may be too complicated for mere public health mortals to be held accountable for ever figuring out; and not -- certainly not -- trying to figure it out for oneself. Mark Blaxill made this point in a note to the author, Donald G. McNeil Jr.:
“Allow me to suggest that before giving such prominence to the suggestion that the high Somali autism rates might be a statistical aberration, your story would have benefited from some real investigation into the historical evidence on autism in Africa and among African immigrants to the west. I wrote about this a few months ago and have copied the full piece below. I suggest you put aside your hostility to the vaccination hypothesis and simply review the evidence I have presented in the follwing article, Out of Africa and Into Autism: More Evidence Illuminates the Somali Anomaly in Minnesota.”
It’s worth repeating a few paragraphs from Mark’s original post:
For the American autism community, the rapidly evolving Somali experience in America is unfolding in familiar form: first with their own rising awareness of the autism anomaly as inexplicably high numbers of autism diagnoses show up in their children, followed closely by organized denial by public health authorities of both the rising numbers and the obvious potential causes. American parents are accustomed to the evidentiary arguments and the debating points. But in the case of the Somali anomaly, the evidence is even starker and bears repeating.
1) Autism has always been rare in Africa, with low rates that have surprised researchers.
2) Most autism in Africa occurred in elite families with access to Western health services.
3) Among Africans who migrate to Western countries, autism rates are remarkably high. These immigrants face unusual risks of over vaccination.
What does it take to connect the dots here? But let me take you all through a quick tour of the evidence base on autism in Africa (see a short list of references at the end of this essay). It’s deeper and more conclusive than most of you might know.
That quick tour is a lot more cite-seeing than anyone at The New York Times or ABC has ever done, or will do. Yet these are the Journalists, dedicated to the deepest principles of the craft, and we’re the “bloggers,” the activists, the “anti-vaccine” troublemakers who are ruining it for everyone because we can’t be trusted to actually dig up the truth and tell it.
Uh, let’s put that idea through the verification-of-truth-ometer and see how it holds up, shall we?
Dan Olmsted is Editor of Age of Autism.
*What is it about Minnesota? Could it be MERCURY? Just for instance: “In a surprise development, mercury levels in Minnesota fish have been rising -- likely due to coal burned in China and India,” reported John Myers in the Duluth News Tribune recently.