The Power, Peril and Promise of Health Journalism

Online Prescription Concept

The Toronto Star, Canada’s most widely read newspaper known for its investigative reporting gifted anti-vaccination audiences armament by using poor science to point to a spurious connection between an HPV vaccine and illness. The issue points to journalism’s power to shape the discourse of health issues and it points to the power, promise and peril associated with good (and not so good) science reporting. 

With great power comes great responsibility – Uncle Ben, Spiderman

It started with a story

On Thursday February 5th, 2015 the Toronto Star, Canada’s most widely read newspaper that has a reputation for solid investigative journalism, published an story that connected the experience of young girls and negative health effects with the receiving the Gardasil HPV vaccine. The story was immediately and widely criticized by experienced science journalists and health professionals alike, who argued that it was based on terribly flawed science.

The Toronto Star’s reaction was to defend itself, arguing in many different fora that they indeed mentioned that there was little scientific evidence that supported the link between the vaccine and the negative health effects being discussed in the article. The problem is that these links are buried deep in the article and certainly are not its focus: the hypothesized harms are.

Two days later, the Star published a follow-up op-ed letter which was authored by two health professionals and co-signed / supported by dozens of Toronto’s leading physicians condemning the original article. However, by that time the damage is likely to have been done and one more bit contribution to the fictitious ‘evidence’ for vaccine harms had been added to the anti-vaccine movement’s war chest.

Perpetuating harm

This matter of poor reporting is not a trivial issue. The fraudulent science performed by Andrew Wakefield linking autism to vaccines helped spur an evidence-thin anti-vaccination movement. Today, we are seeing the resurgence of diseases once thought to be eliminated in North America (like measles) because so many people are not having their children vaccinated. Jenny McCarthy is among the celebrities who have taken up the cause of anti-vaccination and has written about and spoken at length about what she sees as the connection between autism and vaccines, using her son’s experience as an ‘example’. Oprah Winfrey, perhaps unwittingly, gave McCarthy a platform to speak about her beliefs on her show offering wider possible credibility to something that has been thoroughly discredited in the scientific literature (PDF).

For the Toronto Star, it was bad enough that the story was published — and is now online, likely for all time in various forms thanks to the Web — but what made it worse was that the Star was so vigorous in its defence of it, unwilling or unable to recognize their role in public health. Medical evidence champion, author, physician and columnist Ben Goldacre was among the many who counter-attacked, pointing to what he called The Star’s ‘smear campaign‘ against the story’s critics.

For an interesting discussion of the issue of just how the Star got it wrong, listen to Vox health reporter Julia Belluz, interviewed on the CBC’s radio show The Current. Belluz, a past MIT Knight Journalism Fellow, is one of a dwindling number of journalists who understand the practice of reporting, science, and medicine and wrote a stellar critique of the Toronto Star article, but as importantly makes the case for why there is a need for specialized, trained, supported journalists out there doing this kind of work.

…and health

I’ve argued in the past that journalism is very much a pillar of public health. When it fails, so does public health. Journalism is not and should not be an arm of public health for the very independence that good, professional journalism strives to maintain is a reason it’s often called the fourth estate, keeping governments and other forces in check to ensure they are not abusive. Yet, that distance is also what makes it a part of public health. Public health is better for journalism and journalism certainly can benefit from health stories as they continue to be popular and sought after by readers.

As a group, scientists and many clinicians are not great at communicating what they do, why their research is important to others outside their field, and what the implications of their findings are for the public and science as a whole. Some are, most are not. It’s for this reason that the entire sub-field of health sciences focused on knowledge translation, exchange and mobilization has emerged. Just as we value the ability of a graphic designer to make visuals come alive, so too have we learned to value those with the skills to communicate information well and that is what journalists are trained and paid to do. They are a big part of this process, or at least should be.

Healthy journalism, healthy science, healthy people

Science journalism is too important to be ignored. There is much skepticism of journalists by scientists and clinicians and indeed, as the Toronto Star shows, journalists sometimes get things wrong. But its one thing to get it wrong through errors of judgement or interpretation it’s quite another to get things wrong by design. The Toronto Star has some good health reporters, but they weren’t the ones on this story. Nor did they bring in the health reporters to consult on this or other health professionals prior to publication– at least as far as one can tell.

The importance to the public’s health of good reporting requires that health and science journalists have more than a rudimentary knowledge of the topics they are covering. What’s strange is how we understand this with our sports reporting, weather forecasts and foreign correspondents. You wouldn’t watch someone who has little understanding of a sport covering it in depth, would you? It’s one thing to read scores, it’s another to provide investigative and deep coverage of a game if you don’t know the players, the rules, the criteria for quality and success and so forth.

Why do we do this with health journalism and science?

Yet, journalism is under pressure and no doubt the Toronto Star, for whatever genuine contrition they experience from what happened, have to like that they are being talked about. The reason is that journalism is under threat for market reasons, the Internet and the changing ways we get our news. It is, as Jürgen Krönig wrote way back in 2004, “A crisis of the Fourth Estate”. That crisis is only getting worse.

As anyone interested in public health, we need to take actions to ensure that the fourth estate is protected, supported and not ignored. Our health might just depend on it.

Image: iStockphoto, used under licence.

2 Comments on “The Power, Peril and Promise of Health Journalism

  1. Thanks! What’s particularly striking about this article was not just the poor science but also the timing, during a measles outbreak in Ontario. That is very irresponsible journalism, and may have contributed to the strong backlash.

    • Thanks for your comment Karen. The timing of the article is indeed most unfortunate. It’s been interesting to watch as the Star tries to handle this. I was really surprised by what they did and how they reacted. That they made such a mistake is problematic, but everyone’s entitled to do that, but that they kept fighting against the critique and defending ideas that weren’t defensible, which was the real problem in my eyes. I don’t quite get it because they are usually pretty good at this stuff.

      The upside is that because this happened when people were hyper-aware of the problems of non-vaccination there was the outrage that raised some further awareness.

%d bloggers like this: