How 'Balanced' Press Coverage Enabled Vaccine Trutherism

Columbia Journalism Review details the shameful story of how the false fetish of press neutrality enabled cranks and charlatans to promote the hoax that vaccines cause autism in children. Among the guilty: CJR itself. Kudos to them for the self-criticism.

Between 1998 and 2006, 60 percent of vaccine-autism articles in British newspapers, and 49 percent in American papers, were “balanced,” in the sense that they either mentioned both pro-link and anti-link perspectives, or neither perspective, according to a 2008 study by Christopher Clarke at Cornell University. The remainder—40 percent in the British press and 51 percent in the American press—mentioned only one perspective or the other, but British journalists were more likely to focus on pro-link claims and the Americans were more likely to focus on anti-link claims.

While it’s somewhat reassuring that almost half the US stories (41 percent) tried, to varying degrees, to rebut the vaccine-autism connection, the study raises the problem of “objectivity” in stories for which a preponderance of evidence is on one side of a “debate.” In such cases, “balanced” coverage can be irresponsible, because it suggests a controversy where none really exists. (Think climate change, and how such he-said-she-said coverage helped sustain the illusion of a genuine debate within the science community.) A follow-up study by Clarke and Graham Dixon, published in November 2012, makes this point. The two scholars assigned 320 undergrads to read either a “balanced” article or one that was one-sided for or against a link between vaccines and autism. Those students who read the “balanced” articles were far more likely to believe that a link existed than those who read articles that said no link exits.