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Letter from the Editor: October

In 1998, Dr. Andrew Wakefield, a gastroenterologist, published an article that hypothesized a connection between autism and the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine. While the paper could not prove that the link between autism and the MMR vaccine was causal, Wakefield made statements to the press that the causal link existed—despite lacking any sort of evidence and having no direct experience in immunology.

Obviously, these statements were controversial. As Kevin Marsh, editor of the BBC College of Journalism writes, “The British press picked up the story and ran strongly with it. Mothers of autistic children came forward and shared their stories—tearfully—with TV audiences almost daily. Dr. Wakefield became a media celebrity.”[1]

Basically, according to Marsh, the media presented the MMR scandal as a debate. On one side, there was Dr. Wakefield and some parents of children with autism; on the other side, there was a doctor representing all the actual medical experts on vaccines—those who could find no reason to believe such a link existed.

However, the debate was not an equal split in opinion. It was Wakefield against the vast majority of medical researchers (as in practically all medical researchers but Wakefield). Yet the debate was not portrayed as such by the news outlets of the day. The media created a skewed portrayal of reality where Wakefield was given just as much legitimacy as the actual experts on the matter. The result was a public frenzy that still today reverberates in the growing “anti-vaccers” movement.

But why did this happen? What caused journalists to allow Wakefield’s unsupported claims to reach the level of validity that they did? In a twist of irony, it was objectivity—that transcendent value of Anglo-American journalism—that was to blame. Inherent in the concept of objectivity is the idea of balance, that in order to present a true account of the news, one must seek equal comment from opposing sides. Balance has its use, of course, for it would be unfair to give a platform to express only one point of view; yet, as in the case of Wakefield, presenting two sides as if they are equally valid—when there’s no underlying evidence to support one of the arguments—does nothing to help in the spread of the truth. In fact, it does the very opposite.

With Wakefield and the MMR vaccine controversy, balance allowed for the spread of a lie, even though the media was following the journalistic principles of objectivity. In this case, though, balance misconstrued what was really going on, and caused many members of the public to believe that vaccines cause autism.

The MMR scandal and the media’s portrayal of it is a cautionary tale—and food for thought, in the current media landscape.

Since Trump took to the political stage, the media has come under considerable scrutiny and criticism—especially by Trump and his followers. Generally, this criticism has been aimed at bias found in political coverage. This is easy to attack because it is the more obvious: if a news outlet appears to favour one political side over another, it is not difficult to point out and pick apart. Yet objectivity, through balance, can often be equally as problematic. In an effort to appear unbiased, the media often represent opposing views as if they are equally valid, pitting one opinion against another in a forced debate that does little to add real insight into the issues at hand, not to mention enabling constructive public discourse.

However, it’s important to note that journalists are far from wholly to blame (don’t worry—I am not going to throw our lot under the bus). What is at issue, here, is that we, as a society, have come to equate truth with a lack of bias. And as long as the public expects its news to be value-free, balance will arguably remain one of the leading factors in the spread and legitimization of misinformation.

Journalism is not perfect, nor should one expect it to be. Yet society’s expectations that news should be presented in complete neutrality does not reflect the real world—one that is far from black and white. Expectations need to meet reality: if we are to mend the distrust that exists between the public and the media, we need to meet on the same playing field.

[1] Marsh, K. 2014. “Issues of Impartiality in News and Current Affairs—Some Practical Considerations,” in From Theory to Practice, ed. L. Barkho, Bristol: Intellect: 220.

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