Skip to 0 minutes and 2 seconds Hi. My name is Andy Williams. And I work at the School of Journalism, Media, and Cultural Studies at Cardiff University, where I do research about health and science in the news media. I’m going to really dig into a notorious case study in the media coverage of health here. And I’m going to try and think through why, exactly, the news media did such a poor job of accurately communicating the health risks of the measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine in the late 1990s and the early 2000s. First of all, it’s worth noting that not all news outlets reported this story equally badly. There were some excellent and very accurate journalism done about MMR.
Skip to 0 minutes and 51 seconds And in the end, it was an investigative journalist called Brian Deer, working with The Sunday Times, who exposed Andrew Wakefield’s shoddy science. Andrew Wakefield was the scientist who made these inaccurate claims for so long. When the academics– the media academics, like myself– looked at all of the news coverage in total, some very troubling trends emerged. Even though there was no credible evidence to suggest a link between MMR and autism, this phantom risk was reported far too widely. The news was just inaccurate. And the man who did the bad science, Dr Andrew Wakefield, along with his supporters, was quoted far too often, especially given the lack of evidence for their claims. But why was this reporting so far off the mark?
Skip to 1 minute and 46 seconds What, exactly, went wrong? Well, research into science news, and how health journalism gets done, and how audiences understand it suggest a number of different reasons. Firstly, the media didn’t check their facts properly. This is not generally down to laziness on the part of journalists. It’s more to do with changes in the news industry over the last two decades, which mean fewer reporters doing more work than ever before. They just have less time to spend ages researching a story– fact checking it– than previously. And this is even more problematic than usual when it comes to getting a proper understanding of science, which can get pretty complicated.
Skip to 2 minutes and 26 seconds Another factor– lots of news outlets emphasised risk and controversy, because these are really strong news values. Sensationalising things like this sells newspapers. Journalists and editors believe– probably rightly, actually– that a good scare story interests the public more than complex science, more than attention to detail, more than the appropriate caveats to scientific claims. Another big factor is that health news often gets politicised. So some politically conservative news outlets in the UK started campaigns to get MMR banned. Why did they do this? Well partly, at least, because the then Labour government was claiming, along with most other relevant experts in fields of public health, that MMR was safe.
Skip to 3 minutes and 19 seconds So the right wing press saw the chance to give the opposition a bloody nose, and they took it. And the final factor in all of this that I want to talk about today is the common commitment to providing balanced news. What do I mean by journalistic balance, first of all? In order to avoid being biassed– favouring one side of an argument over another– and to make their work as objective as possible, journalists often aim to provide balanced coverage. This usually means that they quote a range of people with different points of view, and they let the readers make up their own minds about who’s right. It’s a very deeply rooted professional norm in most newsrooms.
Skip to 4 minutes and 6 seconds It’s still taught as best practise in most journalism schools, including my own. And for most news, it works pretty well. It’s very common in political news, for example, where the government will take one stance, the opposition a different one. And the journalists will report both sides, and leave it to the audience to decide which politician is most convincing. It’s usually a left-wing politician pitted against a right-wing politician, so we’re exposed to both sides of the debate. We can decide ourselves who we think is right. But balance like this can be a big problem when it comes to science and health news. Research shows that much of the news about MMR balanced the coverage.
Skip to 4 minutes and 57 seconds So in the same news story, it was extremely common to see supporters of the vaccine who had valid evidence that it was safe balanced with opinions from Wakefield and his supporters, campaigners on this issue, who had hardly any credible evidence that the vaccine caused autism. Seeing these two conflicting points of view, when both weren’t equally valid– seeing these two points of view in the news created the wrong impression in the minds of the public– the impression that scientists were split over whether MMR caused autism. But there was no scientific disagreement, apart from Andrew Wakefield’s claims, which were based on very thin evidence, indeed, and which later turned out to be rooted in dishonest and unethical science.
Skip to 5 minutes and 48 seconds The news coverage then ended up publicising and elevating the false claims of a dishonest academic because journalists were committed to telling both sides of the story, even when one side of the story wasn’t true. And there’s good evidence that this played a big part in people getting the wrong idea about the MMR vaccine. Surveys show that more than half of people thought there was equal evidence on both sides of the debate after reading all of this news. But this wasn’t the case. This is a problem, because what’s at stake in science news is not often different opinions.
Skip to 6 minutes and 26 seconds For example, whether the Tories are right or whether the Labour Party are right is often a matter of opinion, and rhetoric, and making strong arguments. What’s at stake in science is not arguments or opinions. It’s evidence and proof. So when they reported MMR, the news media gave the wrong impression, because overworked journalists simply dropped the ball. They failed to check whether Dr Wakefield’s claims were accurate, which is pretty bad, when you consider that one of the main reasons the news media is there in society is to give us accurate, trustworthy information on which we can base our decisions.
Skip to 7 minutes and 7 seconds Lots of news outlets saw the admittedly lucrative chance to emphasise controversy and fictitious health risks rather than report accurately the science. And this approach just sells newspapers. We can understand why they do it. Coverage was politicised. The conservative press, in particular, used this issue to score political points against the Labour government, rather than report the evidence, which really is something of an abandonment of that journalistic commitment to providing accurate, trustworthy information. And it’s especially dangerous when it comes to issues of public health, because this is about people’s lives. Finally, the deeply ingrained journalistic norm of balance meant that the overwhelming weight of evidence telling us the MMR was safe didn’t get through.
Skip to 8 minutes and 2 seconds So news audiences thought the evidence was actually equal on both sides of the debate. Unfortunately, this had terrible consequences for a lot of children who contracted nasty illnesses like measles, like mumps, like rubella, which are normally easily avoided.
The UK news and MMR: what went wrong?
Why did the news media report the debates on the Measles, Mumps and Rubella vaccine in such a sensationalist and inaccurate way? Dr Andy Williams, an expert on the reporting of science and health, explores the factors that led to such a great controversy and an increased health risk for children.
Of particular importance is the journalistic convention of providing ‘balanced’ coverage. Why might the notion of balance - so critical to our understanding of good quality journalism when reporting on topics such as politics - be a problem when reporting on health evidence?