Good Stories, True Stories

I remember measles.  I also remember whooping cough and the final years of the polio epidemic.  That was all part of the bad old days of our boomer childhoods.  Vaccines were part of the medical miracle that took a lot of the anxiety out of being a parent.  Fast forward half a century, and we have a population that is so accustomed to having children grow up without major illnesses that parents avoid those miracle drugs.  Maybe this is a good time to ask: what role did the media play?

If you have spent time with people suffering from autism, you know this condition beggars description.   And it is no surprise that parents’ desperation led to a frantic search for causes and cures.  It was a compelling story, for those of us who covered science in the 1990’s.  But take a look back at that coverage, and you’ll find that vaccine skeptics got a free pass in many stories.

Jon Stewart is not the only “reporter” to turn his stage over to a vaccination crank.  He’s not the only one to let anti-vaccinators and misinformed parents talk about a “scientifically proven” link between vaccines and autism.  In coverage of politics or social trends, it’s fine to use the “some folks say” approach to journalism.  But when it comes to medical reporting and science in general, we need a higher bar.

This is a tough nut to crack because science is so durned slow.  And often the skeptics do turn out to be right.  Remember Galileo?  But they have to wait their turn.  Proving that vaccines did not cause autism took time.  That’s because the scientific method relies on rigor and peer review.   That schedule seldom fits with daily deadline pressures.  But the growth of the anti-vaccine movement shows that journalists need to be just as cautious as our friends in the sciences.  We should not cite baseless suspicions and conspiracy theories without giving the strongest warning signs possible.

Science and journalism have very different methods, but we have the same goal: the truth.  When it comes to science reporting, maybe journalists should let the truth get in the way of a good story