Stopping the spread of infectious scepticism

Smallpox, Diphtheria, Polio. Diseases that have thankfully been somewhat kept under control with vaccinations. In fact, immunization can be credited with saving approximately 9 million lives a year worldwide (unicef 1996). But, with all this in mind, why then is there even a passing mention in the media of not vaccinating children?

Global-warming-second-opinion
Tandberg 2014

According to Ward (2009 p. 13), the best editors and reports adhere to a well-defined code of journalistic ethics, but this code can present some challenges in our present technological immersed world, where almost every person has the opportunity to voice their views on a particular issue. With this rise in available opinions for journalists to consider within their reports, how is a journalistic to stick to their code of ethics whilst ensuring that negative and harmful information is not leaking into their stories? Journalists are expected, in accordance with the SPJ code of ethics, to ‘give voice to the voiceless’ and to ‘support the open exchange of views, even views they find repugnant’ (Ward 2009, p. 14). But when taking these ethics into strict consideration when reporting on issues such as climate change and vaccinations, a form of ‘false balance’ may arise – “providing space disproportionate to its scientific credibility to perspectives running counter to what is now widely accepted as the ‘established’ scientific judgement” (Ward 2009, p. 14). Amongst the issue of vaccination, reporters who are attempting to stick to the code of ethics by supporting the open exchange of all views, may in fact be better off evaluating and reporting evidence based on the science, rather than balancing opinions of people who are ill-informed about the accepted science of the issue. 99% of experts support the view that childhood vaccinations are safe and effective, whilst 1% do not (Dunlop 2013); but, if the media is to give equal airtime to science deniers, then the audience begins to consider the sceptic’s point of view, and the fact that vaccinations are essential is lost amongst the false balance. This false balance actually has the potential to cause harm, as failure to vaccinate children endangers both the health of the children themselves as well as others who would not be exposed to preventable illness if the community as a whole were better protected (Daley & Glanz 2011). Parents have been persistently misled by information in the media that questions the effects of vaccinations, and in fact, the number of deliberately unvaccinated children has grown to such a large number that it may be fuelling more severe outbreaks. In a recent survey of more than 1500 parents, one quarter held the mistaken belief that vaccines can cause autism in healthy children, and more than one in ten had refused at least one recommended vaccine (Daley & Glanz 2011). This is purely the result of the media giving undeserving airtime to the sceptics, whose views are then spread and, like wildfire, are very hard to distinguish once it is amongst public belief that vaccinations are not only unessential, but harmful. With vaccination, there is no debate. The science and benefits far outweigh the risks. There is no balance required; accuracy is far more important. The scientific perspective should get 95% or above of the column inches, and 5% or none at all should be given to sceptical, opinion-based viewpoints. Thankfully, news outlets are beginning to understand the gravity of the situation, with one prime time magazine-style programme issuing this statement on their Facebook page following a viewer complaint about a vaccine story: “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” (Dunlop 2013).


An example of false balance in regards to vaccinations

So, in our increasingly consumers-turned-producers society, should the code of ethics remain as strict on journalists? Or should journalists and official news outlets have the ability to discount viewpoints that are so sceptical and opinion-based that they have the ability to cause harm? I sure think so. If these people want to go against science and risk their children’s lives as well as the lives of those around them, then I don’t believe they deserve to have their opinions publicly voiced. They are very welcome to speak out on social media, blogs and the like, where their views are always going to be met with questions and scepticism, but if official news outlets feature their opinions, then credibility and plausibility is instantly added. We need to immunise the media against stupidity.

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Reference:

CDC 2014, What Would Happen If We Stopped Vaccinations?, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, viewed 14 October 2014, <http://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/vac-gen/whatifstop.htm>.

Daley, MF & Glanz, JM 2011, ‘Straight Talk about Vaccination’, Scientific American, 16 August, viewed 14 October 2014, <http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/straight-talk-about-vaccination/>.

Dreher, T 2014, ‘Global Crises and Global News: Pacific Calling Partnership’, lecture, BCM111, University of Wollongong, delivered 8 October 2014.

Dunlop, R 2013, ‘Anti-vaccination activists should not be given a say in the media,’ Guardian, 16 October, viewed 14 October 2014,
<http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/oct/16/anti-vaccination-activists-should-not-be-given-a-say-in-the-media>.

Tandberg 2014, The ‘False Balance’ Climate Change Cartoon, image, Before It’s News, viewed 14 October 2014, <http://beforeitsnews.com/environment/2014/07/the-false-balance-climate-change-cartoon-2506190.html>.

Unicef 1996, Vaccines bring 7 diseases under control, unicef, viewed 14 October 2014,
<http://www.unicef.org/pon96/hevaccin.htm>.

Ward, B 2009, Journalism ethics and climate change reporting in a period of intense media uncertainty, Ethics and Environmental Politics, vol. 9, pp. 13-15.

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