Media coverage of ‘anti-science’: are some issues beyond legitimate debate?

5 years, 3 months ago

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Does the pursuit of free speech and ‘balance’ warrant giving space to opinions which run counter to medical experts in just about every country? By Tony Jaques.



Issues by definition are contested matters on which there is genuine disagreement over facts or opinions.  So what happens if there is no legitimate counter-argument? What happens if news media attempts at ‘balance’ simply give credibility to false claims which are beyond debate? Is that then a reason for the media to stop giving oxygen to dangerously wrong-headed views?
 
This concern is not new. However, it has been boosted by continuing media coverage of the campaign by anti-vaccination advocates to stop parents protecting their children against preventable deadly diseases such as whooping cough.
 
A glaring example is a recent article in the Daily Mail online which devoted almost 2,000 words and six photographs to a mother of eight children explaining all her reasons for not vaccinating babies. This wasn’t a news item in which a journalist even attempted to provide some balance. It was an "opinion piece" by a leading anti-vaccination activist and President of the Australian Vaccination-skeptics Network.
 
This one-sided article so outraged News Ltd columnist and blogger Jo Thornley that she burst into print under the uncompromising headline:  "It is not okay to run an article written by the head of the anti-vaccination lobby."  She said it simply gave "a bizarre amount of oxygen" to claims that vaccines cause problems such as autism and ADHD when such allegations have been "resoundingly debunked" by health experts around the world.
 
The gravity of the situation
 
"There’s no other side to the debate.  In fact there is no debate," she wrote. "A debate occurs when there are two different opinions of potentially comparable weight. Believing that vaccines cause autism in the face of zero reliable evidence is like claiming that gravity is rubbish, yet refusing to float upwards."
 
While the campaign against vaccination will doubtless continue to flourish on the Internet – the wild west of prejudice and emotion posing as legitimate opinion – the case raises important issues for journalists and communication professionals.
 
Does the pursuit of free speech and ‘balance’ warrant giving space to opinions which run counter to medical experts in just about every country?  And most importantly, this is not just opinions about the latest movie or celebrity stumble.  It’s about the health and lives of our most vulnerable citizens.   Look no further than the recent measles outbreak in California.  Look no further than the recent death from whooping cough of four-week-old Riley Hughes in Western Australia which triggered national headlines and a shortage of product for adult vaccination.
 
Countenancing anti-science
 
In this context, should mainstream media continue to countenance such an anti-science cause?  This question was raised back in 2011 by a controversial editorial in the British Medical Journal provocatively titled "When balance is bias." It argued that while the journalistic quest for objectivity and impartiality was understandable in coverage of politics and arts, it was ridiculous to demand balance in science communication.
 
"The media insistence on giving equal weight to both the views of the anti-vaccine camp and to the overwhelming body of scientific evidence exonerating the (MMR) vaccine from its alleged adverse effects made people think that scientists themselves were divided over the safety of the vaccine, which they were not."  The result, they said, was "false balance" which, in the case of the MMR vaccine, helped fuel a public health disaster.
 
Or as TV MediaWatch host Paul Barry commented on the same subject: "To put it bluntly, there’s evidence, and there’s bulldust. It’s a journalist’s job to distinguish between them, not to sit on the fence and bleat ‘balance’. Especially when people’s health is at risk."
 
The role of the media in promoting this "bulldust" was well captured by an article on Salon.com late last year by author Elena Conis, who chronicled the way major media heavyweights in the United States, including Oprah Winfrey, Larry King and Ellen DeGeneris, had competed with each other to promote the anti-vaccination celebrity and "mother warrior" Jenny McCarthy.
 
Professor Conis had no doubt about who to blame, with the article headlined "Jenny McCarthy’s new war on science: Vaccines, autism and the media’s shame."
 
Media shame
 
"Media shame" is a pretty bold accusation, but Conis argues that conversation about the alleged link between vaccination and autism was "abetted by a media determined to pose everything as a conflict." That heated debates are newsworthy while harmonious agreement is not.
 
It’s clear the media is a critical venue for identifying, communicating, and evaluating risks in society. But Conis says that while the media certainly embraced this role in the debate over vaccines, covering it attentively, they stayed focused on the vaccine-autism link long after scientists had dismissed it, giving voice to parental fears that spoke directly to a lack of confidence in government’s, and the healthcare industry’s, ability to protect their children from omnipresent risks.
 
Now, I am not for a moment arguing that this is a case for shutting down legitimate debate on controversial issues.  For example, some people might claim that climate change falls into the same category.  That the "science verdict is in" on whether man is contributing to warming of the planet. Case closed.
 
But unlike climate change – which is not just a scientific but also a highly political discussion – the anti-vaccination campaign has no real political constituency. A better comparison would be the campaign in favour of raw milk.  This is an issue which took a beating in Australia a few months ago when new restrictive regulations followed the death of a three year old boy and the hospitalisation of three other children who were fed raw milk, supposedly sold as a bath product.
 
However climate change provides us with an example of what communication professionals can do. In mid-2014, 10 of the world’s top Public Relations companies announced that they would not work with any climate deniers.   It was a small – and possibly largely symbolic decision – but it was certainly a step towards promoting genuine debate. Perhaps others should follow suit.
 
Yet, when it comes to balanced discussion the British Medical Journal editorial questioned journalists’ capacity and willingness to decide where the truth lies. "Given that scientists are not always expert communicators," they said, "there is a real risk that the anti-science view will hold sway."
 
This raises important questions, not only about the role of the news media in the way issues are reported, but also about the way issue managers and other practitioners deal with the media.  It’s certainly clear that we need to help scientists communicate better. But maybe there really are some exceptional issues – like anti-vaccination – where there simply is no room for debate.
 
 
About the author
Dr Tony Jaques is a Melbourne-based consultant specialising in issue and crisis management and the review of organisational processes. He has been widely published in international journals including Public Relations Review, Journal of Communication Management, Journal of Public Affairs, Corporate Communication, International Journal of Strategic Communication and Asia Pacific Public Relations Journal, as well as writing chapters in textbooks in Australia, USA and UK.  A full list of his publications can be seen at www.issueoutcomes.com.au 
He is the author of the recently published Issue and crisis Management: Exploring issues, crises, risk and reputation (Oxford University Press 2014) and also writes Australia’s only specialist issue and crisis newsletter, Managing Outcomes. 

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Tony Jaques

Tony Jaques, Managing Director, Issue Outcomes P/L; Editor, Managing Outcomes, the online issue and crisis newsletter; and author of Crisis Proofing: How to save your company from disaster

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