select search filters
roundups & rapid reactions
before the headlines
Fiona fox's blog

has the MMR debacle immunised the media against other scare stories?

This is an extract from an article that appeared on the Guardian website on Friday 29th April.

When Jeremy Paxman this week apologised to MMR experts on Newsnight for the shameful role played by parts of the media in the MMR crisis, he joined a chorus of soul searching over who is to blame for the ongoing measles outbreak and whether an unfounded scare story with such far-reaching consequences would get so much media attention today.

For my part I can think of few players in this saga who should not indulge in a little critical self-reflection, but if I have to choose a culprit mine would be the media’s serious addiction to amplified debate and controversy in the name of the principle of “journalistic balance”. There is much to criticise Wakefield for, but not even he can be held responsible for the completely false impression that medical science was split down the middle on the safety of the jab. Surveys show that is what the public believed.

But could it happen again? In some ways the outlook is rosy. Stung by criticism of inaccurate reporting on stories like MMR, many editors now defer more to their specialist science and health reporters, who were sidelined at the height of the MMR frenzy. Like good specialists should, these journalists do battle with news editors on a daily basis over what, where and how new studies are reported – and whether they are covered at all.

The scientific community is also playing a dramatically different role now. When Wakefield made his claim 13 years ago, far too many scientists and institutions lambasted the media coverage in the same breath as refusing to speak to the media. That thousands of research scientists are now prepared to leave their ivory towers to ensure that the media have access to their expertise at times like this will help immunise us against another MMR scare.

Avoiding another MMR-style scare requires vigilance, which is why the Science Media Centre got together with a group of science reporters, news editors and sub editors to draft guidelines for good science reporting, which we submitted to Leveson. They were recommended in his final report. Perhaps when we finally get our new press regulator the guidelines will be adopted and we can collectively make sure that the vaccine scare we all talk about continues to be MMR.

The debate carried on in the comment section below the line:

26 April 2013 5:27pm

What everyone seems to forget in this debate is that it was the expert press – the Lancet, run by medical professionals and employing expert peer reviewers, which set the MMR problem going.
The Lancet is not what is normally meant by ‘the media’. It reaches a small specialised audience. It has the trust of many – including specialist journalists in the mainstream media who then followed up what it had published.

This is what kicked the problem off – and it certainly led to some very damaging excesses.

However it was then the mainstream media that helped put things right – initially in the form of a long article by Brian Deer in The Sunday Times on February 22, 2004.

Fiona Fox has ignored this to present a simplistic picture of what really happened with MMR, conflating specialist and mainstream media and ignoring key events such as the ST’s demolition of the errors made by Wakefield and the Lancet. The whole story is certainly a sorry one but it’s more complicated than described here.

As for the more general comments about what Fiona really thinks happens in newsrooms – well they are very interesting. But Fiona, rather like one might ask Wakefield, where is the evidence?

You say: “the persistence of a certain culture and practice in newsrooms” or “the media’s love affair with mavericks and outliers continues to leave scientists in despair as they watch people with little or no expertise enjoying disproportionate column inches and air time on issues like climate change and child development.”

The implication of remarks like these is that science is constantly and grossly misreported. There will always, of course, be articles where things go wrong but your newsrooms don’t sound like any I know. So who have you spoken to? And how did you collate and assess the evidence? Did you spend any time actually in newsrooms? As with Wakefield, it would be good to see the real evidence behind your claims.

Jonathan Leake, Science Editor, The Sunday Times

27 April 2013 12:50pm

Jonathan Leake is absolutely right to say that the MMR story is more complicated than I allow for. I could probably write a book on it, but sadly the Guardian only wanted 800 words and of course much complexity is left out. I’m also grateful to Jonathan for a chance to pay tribute to Brian Deer who is my hero. Tragically however the kind of investigative reporting that Brian Deer does is not representative of the media. In fact he is almost unique these days in pursuing one story for so many years.

Jonathan says I am selective and then only focuses on my concerns about the culture of newsrooms. Just a few paragraphs before I talk about my faith in science journalists and conclude that an MMR scare is unlikely under the watchful eye of good journalists. I did not imply that science is constantly and grossly misreported and I do not believe that. In fact I spend most of my life at talks to scientists, on my blog and indeed in my evidence to Leveson saying the exact opposite – that the vast majority of science and health reporting in UK mass media is excellent.

There is plenty of evidence about the media loving mavericks and outliers and I’m not even sure most editors would see it as a criticism. A few years back I lost a New Year and several weekends to claims made by rogue IVF doctors like Xavos and Antinori, and even by a bizarre US sect called the Ralians, that they had cloned the first human. There was no evidence, the scientists did not publish in peer reviewed journals, did not present at scientific conferences and did not allow the press or other scientist to scrutinize their findings.

Aric Sigman is very often in the media expressing his alarming concerns about the effects of screen time and childcare on the developing brains of young children. Sigman is not a neuroscientist or medically qualified, does not do scientific research and does not work in an academic setting. And this week newsrooms have gone back to favoured experts including Richard Halvorsen, a private GP who runs a vaccination clinic providing separate measles and rubella vaccines while generally promoting anti-vaccination views, and Jackie Fletcher, a campaigning parent who is convinced her son was neurologically injured by a vaccine. These people are perfectly entitled to have their views heard but scientists object to how much airtime and prominence they get and the fact that they are often presented as one side of a debate rather than a minority view.

As it happens I am less exercised by the media’s use of mavericks than many in the scientific community, but in this context my point is that Andrew Wakefield got such prominence for so long because editors like outliers and mavericks. The fact that he has been back on front pages in recent weeks suggests that particular news value is alive and well in some newsrooms.

(Fiona Fox)

27 April 2013 3:30pm

@FionaFox – Jonathan Leake is absolutely right …. how great that sounds. Agree with most of what you say too.

But it’s worth emphasising Brian Deer’s role, and that of The Sunday Times which supported him in his research, in this debate because it shows just how the discussion risks becoming over-simplified to the point where we cannot learn from it.

So, the MMR debacle is too often presented as a failure of mainstream media but that is simply not borne out by the facts. Some sections of the mainstream media did come out very badly, but not all. Some behaved very well. Ditto for the medical profession and medical press.

So there is nothing simple to say about ‘the media’ or ‘medics’ and pretending there is just simplfied the whole debate to a level where we are just exchanging prejudices. Mark Walport came out with some trenchant criticisms of ‘the mainstream media’ in his appearance before the HoC Sci/Tech committee last week – and had to be reminded that it was a journalist (Brian) who actually exposed Wakefield where the entire medical profession and journals had failed.

Drilling down, it might be possible to pick out particular publications, perhaps the Daily Mail, and make some fairly trenchant comments but then we are no longer talking about ‘the media’ but about one outlet. And that is probably the level where lessons should be learned.

(Jonathan Leake)

This blog contains the thoughts of the author rather than representing the work or policy of the Science Media Centre.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*By commenting on this blog you agree to abide by our Terms and Conditions.