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.”
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.
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.
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