The recent measles outbreaks in Canada and the U.S. raise some important questions.
What are the responsibilities of editors and journalists when it comes to science-based topics? Those, like vaccines, rooted in scientific fact? Do they too deserve the balance we conventionally consider our journalistic standard? After all, are such stories really a debate?
The scientist in me wishes media outlets would stop giving anti-vaxxers opportunities to broadcast untruths to others. The vaccine “debate” is an example of a dialogue where both sides should not be given equal podium time and benefit of doubt.
Vaccines need to be framed differently. Rather than, ‘We are going to hear from someone in favour of vaccination’—which is like believing in Thursdays if they are something you have to believe in—and then, ‘We are going to hear from someone against vaccination’—which makes it seem like this is an even-handed subject—we should instead discuss it as a human-interest piece; ‘Why do anti-vaxxers think this way? Why don’t they immunize their children? What are the risks?’ Putting the “pro-vaxxers” and the “anti-vaxxers” head-to-head establishes an inaccurate equivalence.
Editors strive to create balance and avoid bias. Vaccination is not a question of equilibrium however, because there is nothing to equalize. One side is a thousand-ton brick, and the other a feather. Creating parity between them is impossible. Newspapers and the radio think they are engaging lively debate by including different opinions, but sometimes there is no debate.
Often, journalists’ role is to question the status quo. Despite the public’s right to do so, in the context of science, sometimes we should simply accept the facts. Vaccines are one of medicine’s greatest accomplishments. They have eradicated contagious, disfiguring and often deadly diseases like smallpox that plagued humans for thousands of years. Hard evidence over decades exists that is easy to access. If you google, ‘Does the MMR vaccine cause autism?’ and open any evidence-based health page, the answer is a resounding ‘No.’ If you then dig deeper, into someone’s personal Facebook page or blog perhaps, you will find the anecdotal evidence to the contrary. To me, those things are not equivalent.
Vaccination is science, not a political debate. Vaccines are not like discussing foreign policy where one or two or seven or nine opinions might be equally valid. Scientific consensus exists, and then there is anecdotalism that blatantly deviates from that consensus. It is not that I do not want to debate. When considering vaccines however, it is about how and what to debate.
© 2021 Clea Machold. All Rights Reserved.