False balance is used to describe a perceived or real media bias, where journalists present an issue as being more balanced between opposing viewpoints than the evidence actually supports.


Anti-vaccination is a fringe opinion. For every 5 doctors who oppose vaccination there are 95 who support it. We are not obliged to provide equal time and space to unscientific and dangerous viewpoints – The Project.”

 

False balance has long been a problem in the mainstream media particularly when it comes to stories concerning science and medicine. It’s a curious occurrence since most journos will scoff when you propose they invite a flat earther on to a story about circumnavigating the globe or a holocaust denier in stories about World War II. But the parallels when inviting an anti-vaxer onto a story about vaccination for the sake of “balance” somehow escapes them.

Of course anti-vaxers exploit the idea of balance by claiming that there are two sides to every story and disseminating the idea that there is a “vaccine debate”. Well, in the interest of saving time and going over old ground, there is no debate. The science is in. Vaccines work and the benefits far outweigh any associated risks.

Before anyone bothered to challenge the idea that false balance was bad m’kay, the anti-vaxers got virtually a free ride in the Australian media. The AVN, fronted by Meryl Dorey (who has recently retired) was a media darling and the go-to person for just about every story concerning vaccination. Juxtaposed alongside highly qualified experts in immunology and medicine, this lent legitimacy to her “opinions” and elevated her to the heights of expert, despite the fact that she has absolutely no qualifications, apart from a “brain”. When she was described on the program for the Woodford Folk Festival as “Australia’s Leading Expert in Vaccination” I didn’t see her falling all over herself to correct this misconception.

However, something has happened in Australia over the last few years that has been very encouraging. Slowly a shift away from false balance has started, largely due (IMO) to a tireless campaign by a bunch of concerned citizens who fall under the umbrella of SAVN.

Why is this important? A recently published paper highlights the reasons why false balance can be so dangerous. Using the consistently reported but thoroughly unsinkable rubber duck of an autism/vaccine link, Dixon and Clarke investigated how this reporting style influences judgements of vaccine risk.

They randomly assigned 320 undergraduate students to read a news item presenting either claims both for or against a vaccine/autism link, a purely anti-vax “vaccines-definitely-cause-autism” article and a “there is no link” article.

Unsurprisingly, they reported that participants who read the article saying vaccines cause autism indicated they would be less likely to have their children vaccinated in the future.

This observation is supported other research showing that  “viewing an anti-vaccine website for 5-10 min increased perceptions of vaccination risks and decreased perceptions of the risks of vaccine omission..

“..more importantly viewing an anti-vaccine website significantly decreased intentions to vaccinate, which persisted 5 months later and this translated into parents having their children receive fewer vaccinations than recommended.”

But what was even more surprising and shocking about the findings of Dixon and Clarke, was that the balanced article produced a stronger effect than the “link only” article.

Let me just repeat that in case you missed it.

“The false balance article citing a possible link between vaccine and autism left participants feeling less confident about the safety of vaccines than the ”vaccines-definitely-cause-autism” article.”

Wow.

The authors suggested the reasons for this may be due to false balance eliciting a stronger perception that experts are divided, or that experts truly were uncertain whether vaccines caused autism.

Thus, the study suggests false balance reporting with respect to vaccine safety lowers people’s intentions to vaccinate their future children more so than even straight up anti-vaccine reporting.

The issue of false balance was covered extremely well on a recent episode of Australia’s media watchdog programme, Media Watch. The segment under scrutiny features Meryl Dorey commenting on a measles outbreak and coincidentally quotes her saying,

“All vaccinations in the medical literature have been linked with the possibility of causing autism, not just the measles mumps rubella vaccine…” (This. Makes. Me. So. Mad. Watch the clip if you dare)

I’m told that this show is required viewing for all journos and getting a mention is a black mark against your name, such is the power of Media Watch. The story (see below) is a smackdown of a report which featured on WIN news and was later the subject of complaints to the communications regulator.

 

“..Dorey’s deceptively named Australian Vaccination Network is in fact an obsessively anti-vaccine pressure group that’s immunised itself against the effect of scientific evidence.”

Some have suggested this functioned as a warning to anyone else in the media should they foolishly decide to go the false balance route. There are rumours that some media outlets in Australia have a complete ban on talking to Dorey (and it will be interesting to see if this still stands now that she is no longer president).

In my own experience, I have recently started telling media if they plan to do a “balanced” story then they will not get my participation. Interestingly, when I was recently asked to go on The Project to talk about The Academy of Sciences Immunisation booklet, I asked if they planned to also have an anti-vaxer. The producer said they had indeed asked someone who had refused to participate unless they could be interviewed live.

As far as I’m aware The Project pre-records all their crosses to allow for editing but the anti-vaxer didn’t want to be made to look silly in the editing (oh yes, I see the irony). The producer told me it was ridiculous that they would expect special treatment when everyone else is pre-recorded so they were not included in the show. Their loss I guess. I mean The Project is prime time, national and watched by a huge number of people so it’s great exposure for your crack-pot ideas. Wait… oh yeah.

After appearing on The Project again last Wednesday (video here) to talk about Melanie’s Marvellous Measles, I was pleasantly surprised to see this thread on the show’s Facebook page addressing precisely the issue of false balance.

projectFB

And no, it hasn’t escaped my attention that Karen Johnson suggests Archie K who died last year. Sometimes it pays to read what you copy from whale.to before you paste it..

The thread is still going by the way, and it’s now been populated by “SHE IS DROWNINK!!!” Bronwyn Hancock and other garden variety fruit loops.

After all the work we have done in an effort to educate the media about the dangers of false balance in vaccination, perhaps it is finally paying off. And given the latest research it’s especially encouraging to see a prime time, mainstream, commercial television show take a responsible public health stance.

Congratulations to The Project and I’ll certainly come back on anytime if you want me. Editing included.

UPDATE: January 28, 2013. It seems Karen Johnston has now deleted the thread she started on January 10 which several hours ago was up to 1000 comments. Here is the last screen shot I got, where she is is scolded by an anti-vax mother. Perhaps she realised she was revealing just a little too much crazy.

last_Johnston


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  • Coran

    “… you have made me think neurotic mothers have steered me in the wrong direction!”
    Goal!

  • Chris

    Andy, on the American Amazon site for “Marvelous Measles” one five star comment cites “The Flintstones” and “Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.”
    .
    I suspect she thought those 1960s sitcoms were documentaries. Because, of course, humans used to have dinosaur pets and no Marine ever saw combat in Vietnam. :-/

  • Andy

    Just revisited that FB thread. I love that Ms Johnston cites an episode of The Brady Bunch as evidence of the benign nature of measles. I’m converted.

  • Andy

    Thanks Doc. If the “Pick a name” option is as it seems, then I don’t see a problem with it. I just don’t want to have to sign in or log in or anything (I’m getting old and time is precious and memory is in shortening supply).
    .
    I don’t have a WordPress login so a lot of WP blogs seem to be off limits to me these days (eg: R-Hank & Lucky Losing) because they require a login of some sort. I don’t know if they’ve enabled it by choice to cut the nonsense (or maybe to exclude me :( ) or if it’s a default that a lot of bloggers aren’t turning off (though I used to comment on those blogs without login).
    .
    That said, if it means you blog more often, make whatever changes suit you, not me. I’m really missing Aussie sceptical blogs these days. So much stuff being discussed on Facebook and Twitter but not fleshed out in detail where Google (and interested bystanders) can find it.

  • http://willradik.com Will Radik

    Excellent! I’m “parralized”(sic) with glee at reading this.

  • Chris

    Okay, my comment went into the ether.

    Yes, it is fine. It is what Vincent Racaniello uses for his virology blog and his “This Week in Virology” podcast. For some reason the links sent my comment into purgatory, and they are very good podcasts even though I don’t understand much of it.

  • http://scepticsbook.com Maggie

    Andy and Chris, I was thinking of using Disqus for comments but it removes the option to log-in via WordPress. This is what it looks like. I like the interface, but I’ll try to find something else if you guys object

    http://youngausskeptics.com/2013/01/illuminating-the-illuminati-new-world-order/#comment-766545573

  • http://scepticsbook.com Maggie

    Oh, I would not remove the option to just sign in with WordPress ID but some people also find it a hassle to have multiple log-ins. So I am considering installing a plug-in so peeps can sign in with social media if they want to. So don’t worry!

  • Andy

    I’m with Chris. I’m starting to ignore WordPress blogs because I just can’t be bothered signing up to something else just to comment. I lost count of the times I’ve written a comment only to be told *after* pressing “go” that I have to sign in :( Unfortunately quite a few of the blogs on my roll are WP.

  • Chris

    Please don’t make so those without FB and Twitter, etc cannot comment. That has happened at a couple of other blogs, and it is very annoying.

  • http://scepticsbook.com Maggie

    Yeah, I need to update this blog so people can edit comments, sign in from FB, Twitter etc. And fix the stoopid style sheets that mean you have to put a period between paras.

  • Andy

    A google of the FB comment author’s name suggests that even the most enthusiastic ferret could never reach the bottom of that rabbit hole

  • Andy

    To be clear, when I wrote “Do you take people to task …”, I meant “Should we…”.

  • Andy

    It’s hard Doc. Sometimes ridicule seems both unfair and the only reasonable option. Do you take people to task when they appear to be a spoke short of a wheel? If not, that severely limits the numbers of people on the anti-vax side who can be publicly corrected. It’s one of the reasons I stopped blogging. It all started to feel too personal and, unlike you, I have no credentials beyond a *functioning* brain to back me up.

  • Chris

    Wow. This is when I really really hope that English is not her first language.

  • http://scepticsbook.com Maggie

    look I don’t want to sound mean, but this comment appeared on SAVN this morning. I don’t know.
    .
    Confused No.. I’m right where I need to be..
    I am a positive inspiring n conscious parent who had made n conscious decision NOT to vaccinate n groups like this will not deter me..
    Such negative n uninformed people will not Stop this Group that I totally support..
    I will shine soo much light in this Group..
    All will be revealed about how your fear drives you..
    Also by putting down amazing women like Meryl Dorby n disrespecting her..
    What comes around hoes around.. LOVE is all we need..
    Conscious Choices about NOT vaccinating..
    Is our personal choice..
    Wow such child like ways n bullying n trying to shut this Group down..
    I have anything to do with this..
    All in the hands of Great Spirit..
    .

    https://www.facebook.com/stopavn/posts/10151366057743588

  • Chris

    Andy, I have also noticed that anti-vaccine beliefs also include innumeracy. In the USA there is bleating because the US Vaccine Court awarded damages for encephalopathy. One is a “Table Injury”, meaning if it is on the table list of known severe reactions then there is almost automatic compensation just because it occurred within a certain time frame.
    .
    So already we are hearing that those two cases out of the several million doses of MMR vaccines given in the USA prove that Fraudy Trousers Wakefield was right. Oh good grief.

  • Andy

    The way I see it Cat, such discussions are all about silent observers rather than the person you’re arguing with. People who seek out material to support their conspiracy theories are not about to be convinced by contradictory evidence but interested observers get to see how fringe the conspiracy ideas are when a light is shone on them.

  • Cat Steele

    4 days into this debate with Karen I meant to say doh!

  • Cat Steele

    Great blog! 4 days into this blog and I still have no idea why I am still arguing with her.

  • Andy

    Further research shows that whilst Ms Johnston claims not to have got her “education” from the AVN or the internet, each and every one of her doctors (making allowances for “creative” spelling) features on this DVD. Scroll to the bottom of that page to see who else is on it. Small world eh? :)

  • Andy

    My most recent research suggests that not vaccinating causes serious illiteracy. The research has not extended beyond that thread. If Google didn’t have spellcheck suggestions, the anti-vax lobby would dry up.

  • Ros Byrne

    Great blog! That thread on FB has been so full of fail. Anti-vaxxers are outing themselves as whackos and conspiracy theorists. They’re certainly not helping their “cause.”

  • Andy

    I loved the admin’s swift and succinct reply on that Facebook thread. The thread itself is a hard slog with Ms Johnston working her way through the anti-vax handbook two or three canards at a time, including the never-gets-boring “straight into the bloodstream” idiocy. But good to see so many people willing to correct each and every one of those canards several times over.
    .
    But I think nothing could top her claim that measles infection made her so creative she became an art teacher. From there on it seemed unfair for people to respond to her at all.