Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Current events: Vaccine controversy makes for daunting journalism

Daniel Schulman writes at the Columbia Journalism Review about coverage of the vaccine-autism controversy. Schulman's take is that the reporting on the subject has generally been too reluctant and generally too accepting of the CDC party line and too dismissive of contrary information. Schulman gives a helpful account of what some anti-vaccine folks see as evidence of a cover-up, and serves up a critique of a New York Times piece by Gardiner Harris and Anahad O’Connor that appeared on the paper's front page on June 25. Schulman notes that the issue is uniquely flammable:
Journalists agree that the thimerosal story is one of the most explosive they've ever encountered. In addition to the vitriolic response Anahad O'Connor drew from readers, he also said he received a number of e-mails praising him and Harris from fellow reporters who had been interested in covering the thimerosal controversy, but had "gotten scared away from really tackling the subject . . . they were afraid of getting hate mail."

Some reporters who have portrayed this as an ongoing scientific controversy have been discouraged by colleagues and their superiors from pursuing the story. A reporter for a major media outlet, who did not want to be identified for fear of retribution, told me that covering the thimerosal controversy had been nearly "career-ending" and described butting heads with superiors who believed that the reporter's coverage "in treating the issue as a two-sided debate" legitimized a crackpot theory and risked influencing parents to stop vaccinating their children or to seek out experimental treatments for their autistic sons and daughters.

The reporter has decided against pursuing stories on thimerosal, at least for the time being. "For some reason giving any sort of credence to the side that says there's a legitimate question here. I don't know how it becomes this untouchable story, I mean that's what we do, so I don't understand why this story is more touchy than any story I've ever done."


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