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Oct 21 2013

Not to sit on the fence and bleat “balance”

Rachael Dunlop wonders why the hell media stories about medicine include bullshit for “balance.”

There’s a term to describe giving more time to opposing view points than the evidence actually supports – false balance.

So okay, my “feelpinions” might get hurt, but does it really matter otherwise? Well yes, it turns out it does.

A recent study reports that stories about vaccines that include false balance are actually more dangerous than those that are purely anti-vaccine. Yes, you read that correctly. Stories that offer both sides of the coin can have a greater negative influence on people’s decision to not vaccinate than those that are purely anti-vaccine.

Why? Perhaps because they give an impression of genuinely divided opinion among experts.

The Australian media, to their credit, have moved away from false balance in vaccine stories over the last few years. I like to think that grassroots campaigning has contributed to that, even if only a little. Certainly, I personally have made an effort to explain why false balance is bad and in some cases I’ve even declined to participate in stories if journalists insist on including anti-vaccine campaigners.

I now know of a couple of mainstream media outlets who have policies of not speaking to anti-vaxers at all when they do science based vaccine stories, which is a fantastic result. Indeed, one prime time magazine-style programme issued this statement on their Facebook page following a complaint from a viewer about an appearance I made on the show to discuss a measles outbreak.

Anti-vaccination is a fringe opinion. For every 5 doctors who oppose vaccination there are 95 who support it. We are not obliged to provide equal time and space to unscientific and dangerous viewpoints.

But not everyone is that level-headed, and it matters.

Recently, WIN television were reported to the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) for including false statements from a prominent anti-vaccine lobbyist in a news story about a measles outbreak. Media Watch’s Jonathan Holmes didn’t mince his words when he said:

There’s evidence and then there’s bulldust. It’s a journalists job to distinguish between them, not to sit on the fence and bleat balance, especially when people’s health is at risk.

Holmes’ last point really highlights the crux of the issue. In recent years in Australia, several babies have died from whooping cough as a result of outbreaks in areas where levels of vaccination are dangerously low. The media was also partly blamed for contributing to another measles epidemic in Swansea, Wales that persisted for eight months, resulting in a total of 1,219 cases and the death of one person.

Large numbers of children in the 10-18 age bracket had not received their scheduled measles, mumps, rubella (MMR) vaccines, partly due to significant, uncritical coverage by the British media of false claims about the safety of MMR in 1998. The vaccine/autism claims were initiated by Andrew Wakefield who was subsequently struck off the medical register, his scientific study scratched from the record, and has gone onto be named by Time magazine as one of the “great science frauds” of modern history.

Whilst no one gets hurt if you ask a flying carpet salesman questions about commercial flight, the consequences of people not vaccinating are real and potentially tragic. With vaccination, there is not debate. The science is in and the benefits far outweigh the risks. No balance required.

Disagreeing over what flavor of ice cream to have for the party? Go for balance. Vaccinations? Do not go for “balance.”

 

6 comments

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  1. 1
    moarscienceplz

    “Bulldust”???

    But srsly folks – Yes, false balance is a big problem. We should try to make this a prominent issue so it becomes a ‘hot stove’ – make journalists understand viscerally that if they provide a soapbox for ‘bulldust’ that they will suffer for it. Watch your local news regularly and tell the news director when you see false balance, and make sure they acknowledge it. Local stations aren’t used to getting much feedback because people tend to just yell at their TVs and then forget all about it, so if you contact them even four or five times (and behave rationally and calmly) you can make a big impression.

  2. 2
    Ani J. Sharmin

    This false balance on science and healthcare news really, really bothers me, because it can worsen people’s health and cost their lives. If a reporter wants to do an expose story on an anti-science group, to explain what harm they are doing, that can be a good idea. However, to do this false balance where you get one accurate quote and one inaccurate quote, without differentiating between them or explaining further, that is harmful.

    There are reporters who treat their job as “reporting on what everyone is saying”, so they just put together a bunch of sentences about Group A says this, Group B says this, Group C says this. I’ve read news articles online that seem to follow an identical template, in terms of how they introduce the topic, get a quote from one person, and then get a quote from someone who disagrees—without discussing any evidence related to the topic.

    I have to wonder if part of the issue is that at least some of the reporters themselves aren’t familiar with the science. How many of them are science journalists with actual degrees in some science subject related to what they are writing about, or some experience reading scientific papers or valid sources?

    And on top of that, there’s an addition weird thing: Sometimes, there will be brief news stories about some brand new research (usually something that’s uncontroversial politically and/or something that sounds cool/futuristic), treating it like it’s something set in stone, even though it is very much in the experimental stage, not yet certain. But a news story about something with lots and lots of research to back it up (like vaccination or evolution) will be given this false balance treatment.

  3. 3
    Rob

    Bulldust is what bullshit becomes after it has spent several months in hot summer sun, desiccating, breaking down and being trodden under foot. Works with both ideas and manure!

  4. 4
    latsot

    I’ve long argued that the media were more responsible for vaccination nonsense here in the UK than Andrew Wakefield.

    Don’t get me wrong. Wakefield is a monster. But it seems to me that the media exploited him under the guise of balance to invent out of whole cloth the idea that vaccines might cause autism. If they’d written him off as a crank – a dangerous crank, to be sure – then I doubt there would have been an issue and there’d be more children alive today. But they wheeled him out as ‘balance’ and worried lots of people for absolutely no reason at all. And they claim they don’t need regulation.

  5. 5
    left0ver1under

    There is no “balance” over vaccination for the same reason there is no “balance” about rape and murder being immoral.

    Some issues can have many sides, not just two, but there are some issue that have only one side…unless by “two sides” you mean right and wrong.

  6. 6
    ismenia

    There’s a book called “The Geek Manifesto” that talks a lot about this. The book is UK based and mostly concerned with UK politics but still worth reading for those outside the UK as I expect the same problems occur elsewhere.

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