Bad Astronomy, a Discover Magazine blog by astronomer Phil Plait that covers bad science and bad science journalism, unveiled a case of what he calls “dangerous” science reporting last weekend in a September 19th Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC AU News) report about H1N1 Flu vaccines.
The story, “Lobby group urges more swine flu vaccine tests,” is “dangerous and ridiculous,” according to Plait. He suggests it may mislead readers into false and dangerous views on vaccination.
The main problem Plait highlights is that the report does not provide the appropriate facts to dispute a statement attributed to one of its sources, Meryl Dorey, which is contrary to scientific opinion.
In the report, ABC AU News attributes the statement that “the H1N1 vaccine could prove more dangerous than the disease itself,” to Australian Vaccination Network president Meryl Dorey.
Plait objects: “They quote notorious antivaxxer Meryl Dorey — yeah, her — without barely a nod to reality (just mentioning at the very end that Dorey and her antivax network have been accused of ‘ spreading misinformation ‘, when in fact the truth is far richer than that simple statement),” he says. [Quoted links are original to Plait’s post]
In sourcing Dorey near the top of the article and failing to discuss her bias and potential to provide misinformation until the end, the ABC AU News story opens the opportunity that readers will absorb her quote without much needed context—context that, according to Plait, is not present in the article at all:
“Where is an interview with a real doctor? Where are the actual numbers? Where is the link to research by real scientists showing how dangerous H1N1 is and how we know the vaccine is OK to use?” Plait asks.
Journalistic ethics (according to the Society of Professional Journalists) requires that a writer “test the accuracy of information from all sources and exercise care to avoid inadvertent error.” Since Dorey’s statement is not corrected in the piece, ABC AU News has made a misstep that leaves their report both inaccurate and misleading.
Plait’s argument here is broader though: that a story doesn’t even have to be incorrect to be bad journalism if it has the potential (which he thinks this one does) to mislead and endanger readers through its structure, its framing, or even its subject.
A reader educated on the scientific facts would probably read the ABC AU News report as noting the continued activity of a suspect organization known to spread misinformation. But a reader not up on the science would find no good explanation here, and might come away fearful and prone to make bad medical choices due to the title, the subject and the first quoted voice in the piece saying that the vaccine is dangerous.
Journalists, and medical journalists in particular, should be especially thoughtful regarding causing harm to their readers through misleading health information. If this story, as Plait argues, has the potential to do that, then he is right to vilify it. Read Plait’s full argument here.