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.