ABC News lies to readers, pretends 2009 news story on vaccines was written last week.

Vaccines (and vaccine safety) has certainly been in the news a lot lately — that’s what a couple of fantastical claims by a major political figure can do. So it’s no surprise that news outlets have been jumping to fill the demand.

For the most part, the reports have been impressive; if anything, I think the overwhelming response shows that worries about the effect of Michelle Bachmann’s fear-mongering about the HPV vaccine are off-base. Over the weekend, however, ABC News published a story on its site that serves as an excellent example of how easy it is to spread misinformation. The story, titled “What To Do If Vaccines Worry You,” was written by a reporter at Rodale named Emily Main. Main’s piece is, on the whole^, an impressive example of a reporter stressing that parents should rely on facts when they make decisions about their children’s health.

It’s also well over two-years-old. That’s right: Main’s story initially ran in June, 2009. ABC, which syndicates some content from Rodale, apparently was looking for a story that could pivot off of the Bachmann imbroglio and used Main’s story to fill that hole. That might have gone unnoticed were it not for science writer Liza Gross, whose May 2009 PLoS Biology piece “A Broken Trust,” is quoted several times in Main’s story.

The result is a number of mistakes, which Gross details here (scroll down to the third comment, which begins, “This story has multiple errors”):

Among the worst: Andrew Wakefield (who isn’t named but referred to as the author of the discredited Lancet paper) is NOT still under investigation for ethics violations. That was true when my story came out. The General Medical Council found him guilty of multiple violations, including “wide-ranging transgressions relating to every aspect of his research” and “serious professional misconduct,” and struck him from the medical register last year.

(Note: When Gross wrote her comment, she was unaware that Emily Main’s story had originally run more than two years ago.) In the scale of vaccine misinformation, the sins that result from this temporal shapeshifting are fairly minor — however, the only reason they were even noticed in the first place is because ABC News lied to its readers about when a story was written. That is not a small deal. (Rick Bragg’s departure from The New York Times in 2003 stemmed from practices that were significantly more ambiguous/defensible than this.) I’ve written in the past about the dangers of news operations cutting their science staffs. I never thought one way news outlets would try to solve that problem would be to merely re-run old dispatches and hope nobody would notice.

^ There is one undoubtedly innocent but nonetheless important error that can’t be explained away by the timeline. That has to do with an incorrect characterization of the thimerosal controversy. Here’s Liza Gross again:

Most egregious, your story says the FDA found that thimerosal use “could expose children under 6 months old to dangerously high levels.” Not true. The FDA said thimerosal in children’s vaccines could *potentially* expose them to higher levels than anyone had realized—because no one had ever measured the total amount before—and so, just as a precaution, to assuage parents, it recommended removing thimerosal from kids’ vaccines. This had the unintended consequence of fanning rather than alleviating fears.

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7 Responses to ABC News lies to readers, pretends 2009 news story on vaccines was written last week.

  1. Matt Carey says:

    Reminds me of a story by Sally Beck that keeps popping up in google news. The story claims that Andrew Wakefield’s studies have been replicated.

    The “replication” was never published, it was an abstract at a conference. Still, the news story pops up every few months and gets a bunch of people in yahoo groups excited.

  2. Liza Gross says:

    Thanks for highlighting this issue, Seth. I was fairly horrified to see ABC run a piece on *this* subject with so many errors—it made it worse that the piece was based on my work. (I only discovered the article because I have PLoS Biology Google alerts. And, as you say, I didn’t realize when I commented on the site that the Emily Main piece they reran came out right after my 2009 story.)

    But the questions remain: Who’s running this site? Where are the editors?

    There’s already so much misinformation out there about vaccines and what they do and don’t do that it’s absolutely essential that any news outlet or reporter who covers this subject does the hard work to get the facts right, and not just the facts but the context in which they come into play.

    The thimerosal controversy has caused so much unnecessary confusion and fear, with predictable and well-documented consequences, as Paul Offit eloquently made clear in a 2007 commentary in the New England Journal of Medicine (sorry for those who can’t access this–
    –NEJM is, of course, not open access but you can find a PDF on Google Scholar).

    I wrote to editors to complain. So far, it seems the only thing they’ve done is change “an article just published in PLoS Biology” to “an article published in PLoS Biology”—but that’s only on their ABC news radio site, And the facts from 2009 remain facts from 2009, not 2011. If I ever hear from anyone there, I’ll let you know.

  3. Unfortunately, I think this is where syndicated content (like that from Demand Media and others) is taking us. Where a bot will look at the day’s headlines, create a request for stories related to key words, and pull out old and outdated information.

    Also, I’m a bot. Maybe.

  4. mIKE says:

    I read the ABC story. Not sure how it was presented as new.
    It’s still factual and possibly the best resource on the topic.
    “Relevant” doesn’t have a time stamp.

  5. tristramshandy says:

    you don’t think the phrase “an article just published in PLoS Biology” (in the first graf) presents it as new?

  6. I’m not at all surprised by this. The news media can be so inflammatory and sensationalistic, they will do whatever it takes to keep people watching, reading, and listening…even lying. But they would have us believe they aren’t lying. And I don’t think all news media are misleading. Some networks have more of a reputation to do this than others do. But, as long as we keep watching they will keep doing it. They only thrive because the advertisers put their money there. And advertisers keep putting their money there because people keep watching. If we stop catering to the bogus media networks, they would fade away. But we as a community tend to be loyal to a network just because that’s what we are used to. We need to break that mold to stop their shenanigans.

  7. Sam says:

    Seth, I just have to tell you thank you for what you are doing. The day my daughter was diagnosed with autism, (Feb 2, 2011) I was confused, overwhelmed, and depressed. I have long been an advocate of vaccinations but I started to wonder if the anti-vax people had been right and I shouldn’t have vaccinated my daughter. I was pulling out of the parking lot from that very appointment where she was diagnosed, and I happened to turn on NPR. I heard an interview with you on the Diane Rheme show. You gave me the facts, reasons, and information that I needed. So I didn’t go home and search the internet for links between autism and vaccines as a vulnerable to suggestions parent. I just hugged my daughter and felt glad that, although she is autistic, she’s safe against HiB, measles, mumps, whooping cough and many other diseases. Thank you.

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