Guest post: Anti-vaccine fear-mongering back in the mainstream: Katie Couric trades fact for emotion.

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Katie Couric

[Editor's note: Tara Haelle is a freelance science writer whose specialties include medicine, vaccines and public health. Her work has appeared in Scientific American and Slate. She blogs at Red Wine & Apple Sauce and is working on a book about science-based parenting with Emily Willingham, who is mentioned below.]

The alarm bells started ringing on Tuesday, the day before a segment about the HPV vaccine was to appear on the Katie Couric Show.

The science writer Seth Mnookin, the author of The Panic Virus, blogged that Couric’s producers had contacted him about appearing on the show. Although he was not invited to appear, he wrote that he felt "heartened" after that conversation that the producers would present a fair view of the vaccine–that they would not create controversy where none exists.

The human papillomavirus vaccine is recognized by the medical establishment as a safe and effective way to prevent human papillomavirus, the sexually transmitted virus responsible for most cervical cancers and a substantial number of throat/neck, penile and anal cancers. The evidence base clearly establishes that vaccines’ benefits outweigh their risks, and that the HPV vaccine has not been causatively linked to any adverse events beyond “fainting, dizziness, nausea, headache, fever, hives and localized pain, redness and swelling at the sight of the injection,” according to the CDC.

But the teaser for Wednesday’s show revealed the producer’s assurances to be, Mnookin wrote, “a load of crap.” The teaser (you can see it at Slate) made it clear the show would, in fact, be looking at the “two sides” of what it billed as  “The HPV Controversy.” A teaser asked if the vaccine was “dangerous” for some girls and featured a mother who claimed the HPV vaccine killed her daughter. Couric tweeted Tuesday that she was “hoping to tell both sides so parents can make informed decision.”

When it comes to certain issues–such as the risk-benefit analysis of vaccination and the existence of climate change–there are not actually two sides to the issue. There is only the scientific evidence and the consensus about what it means. The "other side" consists of the denialists who simply refuse to accept the science–or to accept the consensus that there is no evidence of serious side effects.

To present “both sides” is to commit the sin of false balance, or false equivalence. Emily Willingham defined  that in Forbes as “giving equal weight to arguments that don’t carry equal weight of evidence.” (The Tracker previously covered an excellent CJR piece by Curtis Brainard about the media’s irresponsible reporting with false balance on vaccines.)

Despite the alarm bells, I held out hope that just maybe Katie Couric-the-well-respected-journalist would ensure the facts about the HPV vaccine were emphasized over the fear-mongering about side effects. But the show was far worse than I anticipated. As Karen Ernst blogged at Moms Who Vax, it was “a bad day for vaccines in the media.” Time Magazine’s Alexandra Sifferlin harshly asked if Katie Couric was the new Jenny McCarthy.

Consider guests: A mother whose daughter died just over two weeks after receiving the vaccine. Another mom with her daughter who experienced a range of frightening symptoms after receiving the vaccine. And to represent the scientific consensus, Dr. Mallika Marshall, a pediatrician who had all of five minutes toward the end of the segment to defend the vaccine.

Surely, I thought, Couric will ask for evidence supporting the mother's claim that her daughter had died after receiving the vaccine, right? Wrong. After the guest tearfully described the last time she saw her daughter alive, Couric offered sympathy and accepted the mother's assertion that she could not discuss any evidence because of a pending lawsuit against the FDA.

Couric also featured Dr. Diane Harper, who has been criticized for raising questions not about side effects, but about the vaccine's effectiveness, and who has argued for the superiority of Pap smears over the HPV vaccine. Harper’s tone and redirection of Couric’s questions only underscored the fear-mongering occurring onstage (and added inaccurate information, such as misstatements about the vaccine’s long-term efficacy).

Not once did Couric ask for proof of any of the anti-vaccine claims made on the program. And when she asked Harper whether the vaccine’s benefits outweighed its risks, Harper side-stepped the question, instead bizarrely cheerleading for Pap smears and new diagnostic tests which can detect but not prevent HPV, as Tara C. Smith writes on her Aetiology blog. Harper even legitimized the mothers’ unsubstantiated claims by saying “as we’ve heard, there are some harms associated with [the vaccine].”

Amanda Marcotte does an excellent job of deconstructing Harper’s misleading circumlocutions, and, also at the Moms Who Vax blog, University of California law professor Dorit Reiss presents a helpful list of facts and links about the vaccine while aptly describing the hazards of wading into the comment threads on the episode’s webpage.

At Forbes, Willingham juxtaposes Couric’s coverage of this issue with Couric's past reporting on colonoscopies. Willingham speculates that “the tenor of Couric’s segment would have been very, very different” if it were about a vaccine that prevents colon cancer, which killed Couric’s husband. Matthew Herper, also at Forbes, describes the four ways Couric stacked the deck against the vaccine: downplaying its effectiveness, overselling Pap smears’ utility, underplaying the cancer risk and “pulling viewers’ heartstrings.”

It’s that last one that may be most damaging. We know that the emotional resonance of anecdotes trumps rationality when it comes to risk, especially with vaccines. The show apparently told Hiltzik at the LA Times that they “hope that people can make their own decisions” — but that ability is seriously hampered when the scientific evidence is presented as just a coda to the heartbreaking stories of sick or dead teenaged girls. The video clips on the website are titled “Was the HPV Vaccine Responsible for One Girl’s Death?” and “Is the HPV Vaccine Safe?” As Hiltzik observes, “Merely to ask the questions is to validate them…injecting doubt and emotionalism into important medical discussions and removing science from the arena is playing with fire.”

Yet Couric appeared oblivious to the damage she wrought. Toward the segment’s end, just before giving Harper time to explain that patients “should be comfortable saying no” to the vaccine, Couric framed a question with unwitting irony: “We’ve obviously heard two different sides about the HPV vaccine, and I think for parents watching, it’s probably still rather confusing when you hear these heartbreaking stories that these families have endured.”

Yes, Katie, it is still rather confusing, especially when you are the influential news personality showcasing these “heartbreaking” but irrelevant stories- while abdicating your duty as a journalist to explain and clear up the confusion. And it's you duty to do that without making the mistake of creating false balance.

-Tara Haelle