How the Media Fed the Anti-Vaccine Movement


Syringe/photo by Deborah Blum

In a terrific recent piece, Columbia Journalism Review's Curtis Brainard takes apart the history of media coverage of false claims linking vaccination to development disorders such as autism. Brainard doesn't mince words about the frequently shoddy coverage of the issue: "The consequences of this coverage go beyond squandering journalistic coverage on a bogus story. There is an evidence that a fear of a link between vaccines and autism, stoked by press coverage, caused some parents to either delay vaccinations for their children or deny them altogether."

In his four-page piece, Brainard acknowledges the central role of researchers, such as the now debunked work of Andrew Wakefield,  whose (now retracted) 1998 Lancet paper is  often considered the starting point for the recent wave of anti-vaccination fervor. But he doesn't let Wakefield's own behavior excuse that of journalists who gave him too much credit, failed to do their homework,  or who even enriched themselves by following the Wakefield path.

Here at Tracker, we've occasionally called out some of that coverage as well.  I'll only mention a few of them here, standouts such as Paul Raeburn's piece from last month on the British newspaper, The Independent, giving Wakefield op-ed space and, also, Raeburn's piece from two years ago, "NYT Magazine: Autism, vaccines and a story that should not have been written". We've written too about the really excellent work by journalists who've gone out of their way to battle misinformation, such as Matthew Herper at Forbes.

The strength of Brainard's piece, though, is that he pulls so much of this coverage together and in doing so demonstrates the destructive pattern. It's a warning against the problem of false balance in science reporting. And it's a reminder that we could a whole lot better.

— Deborah Blum