May 28, 2018
By James Lyons Weiler
AS STEEPED IN THE PRIMARY BIOMEDICAL LITERATURE as my life is, I deeply appreciate the press when it covers advances, discoveries, controversies and new studies in science and medicine.
There are three types of such news articles, reflecting three types of reporters.
- The first “articles”, Level C articles, are verbatim regurgitation of press releases from companies and universities. The quotes from researchers are faithfully reproduced, but there is no effort on the part of the reporter. They propagate proffered quotes included to help the public with interpretation or significance of the study. These articles, however, are not the result of critical analysis on the part of the news source, no attempt to place the report of the study into the context of current events, and no cross-reference to similar studies with similar or differing results. To me, these outlets are primarily a valuable source of information that studies exist. By definition, Level C articles contain information and carry forward the agenda of the organization issuing the press release.
- The second type of article is an order of magnitude more valuable to readers, but actually does not require much additional work. In contrast to Level C articles, Level B articles do contain evidence of critical – and perhaps independent – analysis of the study. It will likely contain a list of limitations of the study. For example, it may mention if it had no control group, the fact that it is a survey study, or merely a retrospective study, which falls far short of a prospective randomized clinical trial. Level B articles likely include quotes obtained from direct interview of scientists. The best Level B articles will include quotes from scientists who are not involved in the study, and will include information on possible conflicts of interest reported by those who conducted the study. Level B articles will relate the findings to current events, and cross-reference the findings of the current study to other past studies to set the new findings in the context of the state of the science or current medical practice.
- Level A Articles: Truly investigative reporting on biomedical research the US is difficult to find. In part, Direct-to-Consumer Marketing compromises the integrity of news outlets. This is not a criticism, merely an observation. Just as politicians must accept donations from corporations or have no chance to win an election, news corporations must answer to their corporate sponsors.
No topic is more taboo among major US media outlets than vaccine risk. It took an announcement from from Robert DeNiro that the Tribeca film festival would screen the documentary “Vaxxed” for major news stations to discuss the claims of the film – which included direct evidence from a CDC scientist stating that results were excluded from studies linking vaccines to autism – and even then, the news coverage was nothing like it was in the 1980s.
The CBS investigative program 60 Minutes did not do an investigative inquiry – even though CBS had reported that the study in question “Disproves” the vaccine/autism link. The reporter, the Edward E. Murrow Award-winning journalist Sharyl Attkisson, to her credit, did re-interview the first author on the study, Dr. Frank DeStefano after news of William Thompson’s allegations surfaced. In that interview, DeStefano admitted a “possibility” that vaccines may cause autism in a genetically susceptible subgroup of individuals. Attkisson, who was no longer employed by CBS News, published the bombshell interview on her own website – but other news sources did not dare to broach the topic.
Some readers may recall that Tucker Carlson did host guest Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. on the topic on Fox News in prime time. This remarkable event occurred in a setting in which leadership at Fox News had changed. I asked why it took so long for Fox News to cover the issues – and Kennedy told me: “Roger Ailes told me he would fire any of his hosts who had me on to talk about vaccine safety”. There is no reason to doubt Kennedy: recall that Mish Michaels was fired by WGBH in Boston due to revealing her vaccine risk awareness prior to them hiring her.
I am a guest contributor for Kennedy’s organization, World Mercury Project, from time to time, but Kennedy’s org and I do not share any financial relationship. I celebrate Kennedy and Attkisson’s integrity and bravery in the face of hostility toward objective discussions and reporting on vaccine risk and injury.
We need more Sharyl Attkissons; we need more Level A articles, with original text that demonstrates a reporter’s capacity for independent thought, a lack of agenda, critical and contextual analyses, both for society and on the state of science and medical practice – regardless of the threats of loss of revenue to the news outlet.
Reporters who feel that they are not allowed to report objectively on vaccines or any other medical product for fear of loss of advertising revenue are individually complicit in each and every individual case of harm that might occur when patients unwittingly accept a medical procedure or a prescription from an unsafe product. The funds in their bank accounts from their paychecks amount to blood money for their silence, and their integrity is compromised. The first defense will, of course be rationalization – everyone does it, I’ll lose my job, I’ll never be hired by any other media news outlet. None of those realities absolve complicity.
I would encourage such individuals to slowly improve their reporting, a month at a time. Consider adding brief information on societal context first, then scientific/medical context, then independent interviews.
Reporting on vaccines after waking up to the thousands of studies that have followed the Wakefield study will be difficult. The realities are that the many studies cited by CDC and AAP
- only studied one vaccine;
- were nearly all underpowered (not large enough to find a positive association if one existed);
- were filled with conflicts of interest;
- have been called out for fraud; and, most importantly,
- are not the only studies on the question, and that some studies have, in fact, found association. Clearly, nearly the entire media has swallowed the oft-repeated party lines on vaccine risk, and they thereby perpetuate myths that will lead to vaccine injury in some people.
If you are a reporter, imagine publishing a news article that a drug is safe for use, but in reality, 2% of individuals driving across will be seriously injured or die. Now 10%. Now 20%. At what point do you step out of the safety zone and risk your career? At what point do you show integrity? Now think about vaccines. If you feel a different amount of anxiety when considering reporting on vaccine risk, you are compromised.
To regain your integrity, which comes from within, shoot for Level A articles each and every time. Stand up to managers. When all this fails, contact Sharyl Attkisson and inquire how you can help build a media company. Check out her news program, Full Measure. I’m sure she would be happy to consider articles on topics in biomedicine and science. (contact: firstname.lastname@example.org).