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Olmsted on Autism: ABC, NYT and the Verification of Truth

Journalism By Dan Olmsted

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.


michael framson

I read the AoA to find out the "real" news and the facts. I read the NYT for entertainment, but you can also wrap fish in it. The fish don't seem to mind the garbage the paper prints.


I believe I get as much information from AoA as I do from the sum of other "news" sources I read.

Thank you for this service!


Thanks to Dan Hollenbeck for posting the latest sped statistics by state for autism. I was just talking to a local "reporter" this week about how poorly many states, in particular Colorado, track the incidence of autism. I explained that there is no state-wide system, and that public schools regularly disuade parents from "labeling" their children and will avoid the "A" at all costs on an IEP. This is because in magical Colorado, if you just love your child the way he is, he will blossom in our one-size-fits-all inclusive education, aka "babysitting" model. She seemed stunned ("wow, really?") but of course didn't act at all interested in pursuing the facts or conducting more research. I can see the headlines now: Colorado Autism Numbers Well Below National Average! It must be because we're so great! Those poor people in Minnesota, their education system must not be as good as ours...


Oh Kim. Then you elevate the term "blogger".


When I lived in Cleveland, The Plain Dealer ran a story over several days about a family with triplets with autism. The series was like an ad for the Cleveland Clinic school - ABA/ABA/ABA/ABA. One of the photos showed Dad feeding the kids POP TARTS. I blew a gasket and called the reporter to ask why nowhere in the story had they covered diet and its great help to kids. He was very nice. But his answer was, "Because there are no studies. We only cover and quote on treatments where there are studies." I wonder if that Dad ever learned how much more he could do for his boys than just ABA - good as it is, you know, having been studied and all.


John Stone

I wonder, from the UK perspective, whether the journalists don't really know - I suspect a lot of ours do in general terms, but they don't dare report and the editors are in particular intimidated. And, of course, there are a lot of cynical operators.

Presently, in the UK there is a motion before parliament - signed by 119 MPs - censuring a radio journalist who dared to question the MMR. Of course, she has now been shut up by her employers. The notion that politicians should censure journalists for expressing opinions is pretty scary. Presumably this is a signal to any journalist who now tries to write about MMR.

Meanwhile, they keep on beating thr measles drum. "Bring out your dead. Bring out your dead..."

Diane Frioni

“Since the cause of autism is unknown, the authorities in Minnesota say it is hard to know even what to investigate.”

Hmmm... maybe the "authorities" should give it the old college try and actually INVESTIGATE the TRUE causes of "autism". If they actually investigated, they would "probably figure it out".

Let me be the latest of so many to THANK YOU, Mr. Olmsted, for your in-depth investigation and reporting of the truth behind this epidemic.


What a timely piece. You need to zip it over to this, ahem- journalist- who penned an article titled: “Linking vaccines, autism tantamount to crying 'fire' where there isn't one” at this link:

Here are some excerpts:

“On the internet, the desperate parents of autistic children haven't stopped their anti-vaccination campaigns.”
“Originally, there might have been some justifiable belief that the vaccines-lead-to-autism theory was a real fire. Now, all the credible evidence — look for yourself at the U.S. court rulings — suggests it is a false claim and advocating it is causing unnecessary panic.
So on that basis and in the interest of public good, I think legislatures should draft a law or courts should hand down a ruling prohibiting anti-vaccine promoters from claiming that vaccines cause autism.”


The true state of journalism today is that there are no reporters who are willing to go beyond the press releases - they'll call one expert (local institution MD) and that's it - story over. Frankly, this is also because there are so few reporters anymore. My local state capital paper has very few on staff, most stories are simply national AP stories reprinted.

God knows, Deep Throat today would have gotten Woodward and Bernsteins e-mail and been lost... that's assuiming they had jobs and that the paper is still in existence as another poster alluded correctly too.


This was exactly Jon Stewart's point last week wrt the financial press. The entire time he was ranting about cozy relationships and lack of fact-checking, I was thinking "autism". The Fourth Estate has utterly failed us across the board, and the country is suffering as a direct result.

No wonder newspapers are closing across the country. The market has rendered its judgment -- they are worth approximately nothing.


Gatagorra, Dan and David are journalists. I am a blogger. I do not have their credentials. BIG difference. But thank you.


Media Scholare'

"An expert is an ordinary fellow from another town." - Dr. J. Vernon McGee


I really appreciated this article. Though I never doubted David Kirby's, Kim Stagliano's and Dan's real-McCoy-journalist status and I give parents and activists credit for all they've uncovered, sometimes I give a little teeny bit of unconscious credence to the other side's contention that parents and activists are just bloggers and gadflies, not "real" researchers or investigators. But it seems that if we follow certain principles, we're investigators.

I remember the old days when journalists sometimes rose up from the mail room to win Pulitzers.

I read Jane Hightower's "Diagnosis Mercury" last year and I'm wondering if what is happening in Minnesota is literally a "trickle down" of what's been happening to Canadian Indians for decades. Canadian Dow Chemical's dumping in the seventies to the present and runoff from tar sand productions in Canada may have a special attraction to Minnesota waterways.


Verification of truth should transcend journalism and filter into our public health bureaucracies -- these rigid assembly lines of unquestioning order takers.

I tell autism parents that the Mayo Clinic is a dead zone for biomedical treatments. To some doctors there, our children are potential study subjects rather than hurting human beings that need lab tests and swift, cutting-edge health care for GI and neuroimmune issues (to name just a few).

Attitudes would surely change if I suddenly discovered vast oil reserves under my property, or held a patent on the next blockbuster drug or vaccine. Will & Charlie have to be rolling in their graves.


I am totally with you on this, Dan. Many reporters these days seem to behave more like stenographers. Thanks for NOT being one of them.

Perhaps John Myers needs to do a bit of fact checking. The mercury in Minnesota fish is NOT primarily coming from India and China based on what I have read. It is far more likely to be coming from regional coal fired power plants, chloralkali plants, cement plants, medical waste incinerators (including, do you suppose, Mayo Clinic wastes?), the disposal of amalgam fillings, etc. NOAA did a study at some point fairly recently looking at deposition of mercury from various sources and concluded that while global transport of mercury is not insignificant, the major sources of mercury pollution/deposition are the local sources. Basically most of what goes up, comes right back down--in fairly close proximity to where it went up.

Also there was a very significant industrial release of mercury just north of Minnesota in Ontario--total amount released to the environment (600 tons) was far greater than that of Minimata Bay according to one news report (which implicated this in increased hospitalizations for cerebral palsy in Thunder Bay, Cornwall, and other areas of Ontario)--might be interesting to check the drainage of the region to see if there are any south-flowing streams or rivers that could have brought some of that mercury down into Minnesota. There might be other possible mechanisms of mercury transport in the region, too.

Teresa Conrick


I enjoyed this so much! It is SO on target and I want some AoA t-shirts made out with these:

Ah yes, The Formula: “relying on officials,” a/k/a “the authorities”

Fombonne, Wing, Hviid and Madsen (wrong, wrong, wrong and wrong again

Ah yes. The Mayo Clinic. They’ll probably figure it out. They’re famous. They’re doctors.

Uh, let’s put that idea through the verification-of-truth-ometer and see how it holds up, shall we?

*What is it about Minnesota? Could it be MERCURY?

This is a home run essay on the continued -- and I mean continued -- crap from just about every news source out there. It is mind boggling that these newscasts have not become skits on SNL, with a guest appearance from Jon Lovitz, to play Dr Proffit himself,,,"Yeahhh! That's the ticket!" It again, would be comical if it weren't so damn heartbreaking knowing SO MANY kids are becoming ill aka asthma, diabetes, and the epitome of toxic overload -- autism.

The amount of investigative work that you and Mark have done to, well you described it right here..."Get as close as you can to primary sources. Be systematic. Corroborate.” just brilliant and much appreciated.

The Somalis deserve a full investigation (and a big thank you to David Kirby for his continued search for answers regarding these autism diagnoses among the Somalis)into why their children are becoming autistic aka neurological, gastrointestinal, immunological, sensory, metabolic, and mitochondrial disorder/disease -- and even more so -aka *why do all these kids have bacterial, viral, and heavy metals (could it be MERCURY?) in them*?

I imagine that if cable and the internet were around back in the day, we would have seen and heard similar denial-

"There is no need for doctors to wash their hands before delivering a baby. It just takes time away from their busy and important day. There is no evidence of harm."

"Leaded gasoline has no connection to brain damage. Telling women not to pump gas when pregnant out of fear of possible damage to the fetus is just irresponsible."

"Mercury in fish has generated too much negative attention and takes away from the benefits of essential fatty acids. The benefits far outweigh the risks" -- wait, that's a current one!

But the best T-shirt and the one that reinforces why we are on the right road here is this -

"The essence of journalism is a discipline of verification"

I'll take 1 -- thanks!

Asthma mom

"But the evidence that vaccine administration, especially early administration of DPT vaccine, increases the risk of developing asthma … is compelling."

Time and time again we come back to the question/ problem, call it what you will - of susceptibility. Until such time the powers that be do their homework (hopefully with the right citations) the problem isn't going to go away.

They don't seem to realize that the entire edifice of the modern public health system is likely to collapse. How long can you keep being bumped up to the higher grade without the right end of year testing? Sooner or later there will be consequences.


The state of print journalism today: San Diego's daily newspaper just sold for practically nothing. Turns out the investors just wanted the paper's real estate holdings!

This news was broken not by a major paper, but a small online non-profit upstart in the city--sign of the times.

Keep fighting the good fight.

Dan Hollenbeck

The autism prevalence rates on FightingAutism were just updated for the 2007-2008 school year. MN leads the pack at 1 in 74 eight year olds for the entire state of MN.

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