Media’s False Balance Trap

Journalism has an overwhelming fascination with balance. Generally this is a positive attribute for a journalist to to have. Usually, when reporting the news, it is important to research the story from all points of view. It wouldn’t be a good look if a journalist were to report a one-sided story containing only the hearsay of someone who is known to mislead and misrepresent information, and just generally lie without seeking an opposing angle (see, here and here).

The big problem with balance in the media, comes when reporting on matters of science. When reporting on issues such as climate change or vaccination, that overwhelming need for “balance” is often achieved by placing a scientist side-by-side with someone with little to no qualifications in the area. The thing is, that when it comes to science, opinion isn’t news.

I recommend this video from HBO’s “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” as an example of how to more accurately report on the climate change “debate”.

Climate change deniers and anti-vaccination campaigners love to legitimise themselves in the media by using that word: ‘debate’. There lies the main problem. In the scientific community there isn’t any debate on either of these topics. By providing a “balanced debate” on these issues a reporter is in fact inaccurately representing the truth and providing what is known as false balance.

false.balance

I was recently asked to be a part of a short documentary about vaccination that was being filmed by some uni students. I, and some far more learned friends of mine, spent a good deal of time explaining false balance. Unfortunately I was forced to withdraw from their project because of the strong possibility of appearing along side a vaccine refuser or anti-vaccination campaigner. In email correspondence with the students, I explained my withdrawal:

When anti-vaccination views are portrayed side-by-side with scientifically accurate pro-vaccination views, it gives the anti-vaccs opinions undue credibility in the eyes of the audience. It is, in fact, less damaging to the public’s opinion to allow the anti-vaccs to appear alone.

I haven’t just pulled that statement out of the air. Research has been done on the effect that false balance reporting has on audience’s perceptions of vaccine safety. The study shows that those who viewed falsely balanced articles were more likely to question the safety of vaccinations, despite the proof that the link between vaccination and autism is well and truly debunked. According to this article by Dr Rachel Dunlop (who provides a  lovely lay-person explanation of the false balance research):

Unsurprisingly, the participants who read the article saying vaccines cause autism indicated they would be less likely to have their children vaccinated in the future. But what was surprising was those who read the false balance article were even less confident about the safety of vaccines than the “vaccines-definitely-cause-autism” article.

The authors suggested the reasons for this may be that false balance elicits a stronger perception that experts are divided, or that experts truly are uncertain whether vaccines cause autism …

The thing is, at the the end of the day, false balance isn’t even rewarded by your peers.

This year’s National Press Club award for health reporting and award for ‘Best Documentary or Documentary Series – Health, Health Sciences or Innovation in the field of Health and Health Sciences’ went to journalists who had focused on the issue of vaccination. Both “A pox on both your parents” and “Jabbed: Love, Fear and Vaccines” avoided false balance.

My final words to the media: there is no debate. By presenting anti-vaccination views beside an expert on vaccination, you are legitimatising their unqualified “reckons“. I’d go as far as to say that you are endangering a vital health initiative, and thereby partly responsible for the spread of potentially fatal vaccine preventable diseases.

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Know, check, protect: says who?

“Know, Check, Protect” is the catch-cry for the 2014 World Immunisation Week. World Immunisation Week is a campaign spear-headed by the World Health Organisation (WHO), and runs in the final week of April every year. As the week comes to a close I thought I’d jump on my little soap box and blog about something close to my heart: Vaccinations.

One of the main messages of the campaign this year is just how important it is to be up-to-date with your boosters. Why do we need boosters? The simple answer is that immunity to certain diseases fades with time. This means that although adults may have received all of their childhood vaccinations, they could become vulnerable to some Vaccine Preventable Diseases (VPDs) later on in life.

In Australia one the most worrying VPDs that we have seen a resurgence in is Whooping cough. Check out this graph from NSW health that shows thousands of reported cases at the peak of the epidemic from late 2010- early 2012.

Whooping cough is one of these diseases that requires a booster. Without a top-up vaccination every few years adults leave themselves open to contracting this disease. Follow this link to read the experiences of a lady who caught whooping cough in her 30’s. I’m sure after reading that you’ll agree that this illness is a nasty piece of work.

While whooping cough is awful no matter what age you are, it has the potential to be fatal in babies. Babies are also at a higher risk of contracting the disease until they have received all their scheduled vaccination.

This is where herd immunity is important. When adults aren’t up-to-date with their boosters they form potential pathways for disease to reach our communities’ most vulnerable. If the population maintains a high level of herd immunity then these diseases have less chance to spread. So boosters aren’t only important for adults to protect themselves, but they are an integral part of creating a safe and health community.

I want to finish off this blog by introducing my readers to an awesome group called the Northern Rivers Vaccination Supporters Group (NRVS). These guys are taking their community responsibility to a whole new level. Not only are they looking after their own boosters and getting their own families vaccinated on schedule, they have come to together to spread the word about vaccination in their local area.

In their own words:

We are a group of local people who have got together with a shared interest in increasing the immunisation rates in our community.

Our motivation is simple.

We want to try to reduce the risk of epidemics of contagious disease, prevent the pain and suffering that vaccine preventable disease can cause, and protect the vulnerable who are unable to be vaccinated because of age or illness.

The Northern Rivers region in New South Wales has the lowest immunisation rates in Australia. In one town, Mullumbimby, less than 50% of children aged 2-5 have had their routine childhood vaccinations. This means that we are at very real risk of epidemics, and already our community suffers higher than the national average rates of preventable disease.

NRVS will be celebrating their 1st birthday tomorrow! Happy Birthday guys!

If you, dear reader, wish to send them a birthday present then please head on over to the NRVS website to get some information so you KNOW more about vaccinations and the diseases they protect against. Book an appointment with your GP to CHECK your boosters are up-to-date. And help PROTECT your community through herd immunity.

Happy Immunisation week, everyone.

Thinking Science: do it early, do it often

Science is cool and critical thinking is such a valuable life skill. I’m disappointed it took me so long to discover them. That’s why teaching Miss 5 “how” to think has become a vital part of my parenting philosophy.

I have a little story to share. It all starts with the recent Easter holidays when my family jumped into the car to take a road-trip. Like many people in Australia, there are some vast stretches of road that separate us from our extended relatives, and Miss 5 has become quite use to piling the car high with bags and hitting the open road.

On this particular holiday we drove along the Newell Highway. This was exciting for me. Firstly because the Newell spans a portion of this country that I had never visited before, and secondly because the Parkes Radio Telescope is located within that chunk of country.

NERD-TASTIC!

NERD-TASTIC!

The Parkes Radio Telescope, or the “Dish” as it is fondly referred to, is simply brilliant. In 1969 NASA commissioned the Dish as a prime receiving station for the Apollo 11 mission, didn’t you know? It is still operational today and the CSIRO has set-up a very cool and very interactive science center. If you haven’t been to Parkes, you should. Miss 5 loved it so much that, instead of our initial plan to go home via a different route, we visited again on the return journey. How could we deny her a second stop in when she told us she “wasn’t finished doing ALL the science”?

Here’s the thing that got me thinking as we drove the long, straight, wind-mill dotted highway home; we are all born with such inquiring minds. Miss 5 is so keen to investigate her world, eager to learn how things work and explore nature.

We are all born scientists.

Unfortunately, for so many people, somewhere along the way that scientist gets lost. We see the evidence of anti-scientific thinking in vaccination refusers, in climate change deniers, and in creationists. I see it in own experiences with woo and alternative medicine. How I wish I’d had the thinking skills to save me from being lead down the garden path to unproven and sometimes dangerous beliefs and superstitions. I can’t help but feel that it was my lack of scientific literacy that let me down. I used to have no appreciation for the scientific method, and no concept of peer-review. I was quiet happy to naively believe people’s anecdotes, because they seemed so tangible. I gave the experiences of my friend and family more weight than blinded tests or articles in medical journals. Without science it was so easy to fall into a culture of woo.

Critical thinking and reason are skills which need to be practiced. Logic needs to be exercised. The scientific method is the greatest tool we humans have for understanding the world around us, and it needs to be taught. Children are far more ready to learn about (seemingly complex) scientific concepts than we might imagine. A school in Perth has shown us that 11-year-olds are quite prepared to learn the basics of spacetime. I think this is just marvellous!

It makes me proud when Miss 5 wants to grow vegetables from seeds, or says to Ryanoxide “Dad I’m bored, can we to some maths?”, or she makes us drive home the same way we came just so she can do more science. I’m proud because she is developing her inquisitive mind. As she grows up and forms her own opinions, which will no doubt differ from mine, I’m confident that she will have the skills to produce the evidence that proves just how wrong I am.