The mantra of modern journalism has always been objectivity. Outside of designated editorial commentary, reporters are duty-bound to get all sides of a story and maintain absolute balance.
It is, of course, an impossible task.
In deciding who to interview, how to present the facts, and in deciding what stories even merit coverage at all, journalists inevitably employ varying degrees of subjective judgment.
The mask of objectivity has come off in more recent times. Reporters often double as commentators. More ominously, entire networks are established with the explicit goal of undermining “mainstream” reportage.
But it is the phenomenon known as “false balance” that is — or should be — most troubling for journalists.
Say you do a story on the cause of AIDS. You talk to a specialist who says it’s caused by a virus, HIV.
Do you then get an “expert” who says it’s caused by malnutrition? Or poor sanitation?
Do you talk to a fundamentalist who says it’s a punishment from God?
This is false balance.
And right now, Britain is experiencing the fallout of just this type of reporting.
A measles outbreak in South Wales has put dozens of children in hospital over the past few weeks. At least 700 cases were reported as of late April, and that number is expected to double.
It’s tempting to put all the blame on Andrew Wakefield, the controversial British doctor whose 1998 research paper into a supposed link between MMR vaccine and autism caused worldwide panic.
Even today, after he’s been suspended from practice in Britain following a complete refutation of his findings, Wakefield still has his die-hard followers.
Wakefield is the prime culprit all right, but the main catalyst in this whole mess is the media (including the powerful but less accountable social media).
Anyone can tout fraudulent research. But it takes complicit journalism to give such quackery equal time against clearly more informed and credible professionals.
Why would the media do this?
Ontario pharmacist Scott Gravura contemplated that very question recently in his blog Science Based Pharmacy:
“Controversy sells. The brave maverick physician standing up against the medical establishment — Big Pharma, even.
“But this was a narrative completely out of line with the facts,” Gravura continues. “There has never been any serious scientific controversy about the MMR vaccine and autism — none. Carefully controlled studies, conducted after Wakefield’s initial paper, have failed to show any relationship.”
Astoundingly, Britain’s Independent published an article last month under the headline, “MMR scare doctor: this outbreak proves I was right.”
The piece was yet another lengthy sounding board for Wakefield.
And the blame for that, writes Martin Robbins in The New Statesman, lies squarely with its author, Jeremy Laurance.
“It’s not just the headline,” says Robbins. “Laurance’s article continues to put Wakefield’s point of view for a further 14 paragraphs, before giving over barely half that space to one contrary voice, addressing only a fraction of the points made.”
With reporting like that, you may have good reason to want to shoot the messenger.
In Canada, meanwhile, health and education officials have decided to come down hard on the unvaccinated.
Ottawa health officials warned last month that kids who weren’t vaccinated would not be allowed in area schools.
As of last Thursday, 603 students had been sent home by suspension orders.
The message is clear: take risks with your own health if you want, but don’t mess with tried and true public health policies.
Peter Jackson is The Telegram’s
commentary editor. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.