Context and corrections in writing about autism and vaccines: A case study in misleading your readers

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I’ve already been effusive in my praise of Amy Harmon’s front-page New York Times masterpiece, “Navigating Love and Autism,” which ran on Monday. Today, as The New York Observer’s Kat Stoeffel pointed out, the Times ran a correction to that piece:

An article on Monday about Jack Robison and Kirsten Lindsmith, two college students with Asperger syndrome who are navigating the perils of an intimate relationship, misidentified the character from the animated children’s TV show “My Little Pony” that Ms. Lindsmith said she visualized to cheer herself up. It is Twilight Sparkle, the nerdy intellectual, not Fluttershy, the kind animal lover.

To which I say: Hooray for the the Times! I’m pretty outspoken about the importance I place on correcting the record; more than once, I’ve been accused of being self-consciously prissy with the corrections sections I place online (and in my books). That I make a point of vocally and prominently correcting my own mistakes has also been used as a cudgel to prove I’m reckless with the facts. I obviously disagree; I think one way a journalist (or a journalistic institution) can show its dedication to getting things right is by promptly and publicly admitting when they get things wrong.

The problem with corrections is that oftentimes, the most glaring mistruths are those that arise out of deliberate obfuscations. Take, for example, a blog post that ran on a prominent anti-vaccine website earlier today. It began:

On December 14, 2011, Marketwatch.com (a site connected to the Wall Street Journal) ran the story, Physicians Oppose Mandatory Flu Vaccine for Health Workers.  It was a press release from the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons and this is what it said…

The author goes on to write that she was “stunned to see a story connected to the Wall Street Journal in opposition to the medical community’s constant promotion of the flu vaccine. … [I]t was hard to believe any medical organization would take the bold step of disagreeing with the health officials, Wal-Marts, and doctors telling us to get that annual flu shot.  Instead, a group of doctors was publicly challenging the safety and efficacy of a vaccine.”

Here, the misinformation begins with the first sentence: Marketwatch did not, in fact, run “a story”; as the piece acknowledges, this was a for-pay press release that appeared on a global newswire. There is no reason to be “stunned to see a story connected to the Wall Street Journal” because there was no story connected to the Journal (or, as far as I can tell, any other mainstream news organization anywhere in the country). (If the New York Times-owned The Tuscaloosa News ran a letter that read, “The Panic Virus is the best book ever written in any language, ever,” I still wouldn’t be justified in claiming that “a story connected to The New York Times said that The Panic Virus was the best book in the world.”)

But that blurring of reality is nothing compared to the lack of context given about the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons, an organization that, as it happens, I know a little about. Over the years the AAPS has had occasional success at convincing credulous (or disingenuous) reporters to treat it as a mainstream medical organization; there is, after all, there is only one letter of difference between AAPS and AAP (the American Academy of Pediatrics), and the group’s publication, Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons, sounds like it deserves a place alongside the Journal of the American Medical Association. But the AAPS is a far cry from the AAP, and JAPS has about as much in common with JAMA as my comic books do to the Bible. Over the years, JAPS has been a repository for some of the most outlandish anti-vaccine tracts ever published, including ones by Andrew Wakefield and Mark and David Geier, the disgraced father-and-son team that made money by telling parents they could “cure” autistic children using high doses of a drug used to chemically castrating sex offenders.

As for the AAPS: It is an extreme-right wing group that openly derides “evidence based medicine” and has accused the AMA of emulating Mussolini’s National Fascist Party. Here’s a brief section I wrote about the AAPS in The Panic Virus:

Over the years its leadership has overlapped with that of the ultraconservative John Birch Society. It has compared electronic medical records to the files kept by the German secret police, linked abortion to breast cancer, and claimed that illegal immigration leads to leprosy. For years, AAPS officials worked with Philip Morris on a junk science campaign attacking indoor smoking bans; as recently as the fall of 2009, it claimed cigarette taxes actually led to a “deterioration in public health.”

And those are actually some of the group’s more moderate stances. One month before the 2008 presidential election, it published an article on its Web site* speculating that Barack Obama might be “deliberately using the techniques of neurolinguistic programming (NLP), a covert form of hypnosis.” (The repetition of numbers in his speeches was one of Obama’s “techniques of trance induction”; another was hand gestures that functioned as “hypnotic anchors.”) These tactics were most effective when employed on the weak-willed, non-Christian members of the cultural elite: “Obama is clearly having a powerful effect on people, especially young people and highly educated people—both considered to be especially susceptible to hypnosis. It is also interesting that many Jews are supporting a candidate who is endorsed by Hamas, Farakhan, Khalidi, and Iran.”

That puts the AAPS in a slightly different light, doesn’t it?

* EDIT, 3:16pm: Astute reader David Taylor notes that the original link for the “Barack Obama is hypnotizing Jews and intellectuals” article was changed — and, in fact, the AAPS has scrubbed that article from its site, replacing it with a 2010 post titled “Is ObamaCare constitutional?” Thanks to the wayback machine, however, the original piece can be seen by clicking on the link above.

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