Sat, May

Media Coverage of Public Health ain’t Easy … But Lives Depend On It


GELFAND’S WORLD--The Channel 2 News opened the other night with a teaser showing a full screen portrait of Robert De Niro, suggesting either a big story or a middling scandal. In the way of television, things were of course over-hyped but it wasn't until nearly a half hour later that viewers got any details at all. 


The story at the most basic level begins with the fact that De Niro's Tribeca Film Festival had scheduled a documentary that claims to blow the lid off of the dangers of vaccines. The hypothesis that vaccines could cause autism is an old, discredited trope, but it has its followers. In this case, it had a film and a venue. But the story developed further before it was considered worthy of the television news story we saw. 

Right after the film Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe was scheduled in the Tribeca Festival, people knowledgeable about medical science and public health began to protest. Some questioned how a documentary this spurious was allowed to be scheduled. 

Within a couple of days, De Niro made a public announcement admitting that he himself was the driving force. He explained that he has a special-needs son, and he wanted to inspire a public discussion about the subject. The medical and scientific community gave off an almost palpable sigh of disappointment about DeNiro. At this point, the story had not yet reached the level of national news. 

But before De Niro's public mea culpa and the later TV fiasco, our own Michael Hiltzik had blown the cover off of the story in the LA Times. In brief, the festival organizers should have seen Vaxxed for what it is, a despicable attempt to push a totally dead theory that results in children missing their shots because their parents get scared. The story has since been covered by such well read forums as The Guardian, the New York Times, People, and the television network websites. 

The complaints to Tribeca, now reaching across the Atlantic, were getting the attention of the festival organizers and presumably were having some effect on DeNiro himself. What finally made this story worthy of the 11 O'Clock News was the announcement by De Niro that the Festival was cancelling the showing of this film. Now the story was considered important enough for Channel 2, because it could present a conflict between good and evil. The only problem was that CBS dithered on which side was which. Our local news producers penciled in a minute or so on the 11 o'clock half-hour. 

What we got was the most sketchy, painfully inadequate part of the story, basically telling us that the movie had been scheduled and then cancelled. What inspired this viewer to irritation, if not quite absolute rage, was the newsman finishing the story with a slightly dramatic, "Was it censorship?" 

Well no, it wasn't censorship, as even the news performers should have known. Tribeca is a private organization that can run whatever films it wants, and there wasn't a government agency ordering them to cease. It would be equally absurd to claim that Channel 2 was guilty of censorship because it didn't provide an adequate summation of the pro-vaccine side. 

But this lapse was a mere technicality in terms of the major flaws in this television coverage. Here are just some of the major questions that any defensible treatment of Vaxxed should have covered: 

1) What is the origin of the antivaccination fear? 

2) How does the major character in this film bear responsibility for those unfounded fears? (Hint: He bears a huge load of guilt for sparking the panic and fueling it over the years.) 

3) What is the merit of the antivaccination position? (Hint: Since the original fears were stoked back before 1990, there have been numerous studies involving millions of children, both vaccinated and unvaccinated, and the overwhelming evidence is that vaccines due not cause autism.) 

4) Is the film Vaxxed a fair rendering of the topic? 

5) What is the current scientific feeling about how autism comes about? (Hint: There is a lot of new genetic data that are beginning to expose something about likely causes, and they aren't vaccine exposure.) 

Instead, Channel 2 ran the story in the typical pseudo-balanced style. If anything, the producer of Vaxxed got a chance to be seen on the air reciting a complaint. The station somehow forgot to bring in any of the hundreds of highly qualified doctors and scientists who could have responded on the other side. They're really not hard to find. 

And that leads to my take-home lesson: I don't think that it's likely, and maybe not even possible, for a half-hour news program to handle a complicated scientific subject like this one in a legitimate matter. That goes double for controversial topics. At best, the news directors can try to find capable scientists and medical doctors, and let them translate terms such as epithelium and microRNA as best they can. But this also requires an honest approach that doesn't treat every crackpot inventor as worthy of equal respect compared to the combined faculties of Harvard and UCLA. 

Gosh, we might even try introducing what is commonly called common sense into the discussion. Imagine being back in the 1960s, a few years after the polio vaccine was introduced, and asking a doctor whether it's a good thing to vaccinate children for smallpox and polio. I think you would have gotten a reply along the lines of, "Are you kidding? Any idiot knows that." 

This is not to say that television cannot do capable documentary work. Actually, it makes clear that it can, as long as the topic is solving crimes, and as long as the producers are given adequate budgets and enough air-time. 

Science is hard. It has lots of big words and complicated concepts. The same holds for medicine. The way to understand science or medicine is to study it intensively, for a long time. That doesn't necessarily mean that you have to attain an MD or PhD, but you have to put in the hours, and you have to learn to set aside your own egotistical wants when you ask whether experimental data are convincing. 

There is one part of this story where I will probably find myself in the minority. The blowback against De Niro from the scientific side was a bit over the top. I suspect that the De Niros, Mr and Mrs, are concerned parents who have been hurting over their son's needs for a long time. This is understandable. The fact that Robert De Niro was able to do a 180 degree turn within a couple of days should be treated as commendable. Instead, he is being accused by both sides of caving to pressure. Whatever his motives, the statement he gave to the news media reads acceptably. You might even treat it as giving in to science: 

“My intent in screening this film was to provide an opportunity for conversation around an issue that is deeply personal to me and my family. But after reviewing it over the past few days with the Tribeca Film Festival team and others from the scientific community, we do not believe it contributes to or furthers the discussion I had hoped for. The Festival doesn’t seek to avoid or shy away from controversy. However, we have concerns with certain things in this film that we feel prevent us from presenting it in the Festival program. We have decided to remove it from our schedule.” 

That's actually a reasonably good treatment of the scientific method. 

There are a couple of other points of interest. One is the emergence of David Gorski MD as an increasingly well known public figure. Gorski is a cancer surgeon who mixes medical practice with studies of molecular medicine. Along the way, he picked up the hobby of blogging. In recent years, he has concentrated his blogging mostly on opposing two things, (1) unscientific alternative medical practices and their introduction into orthodox medicine (what he calls "woo") and (2) the antivaccination movement. 

At first, Gorski tried to wall off his blogging from his surgical responsibilities. One way he did this was to try to maintain his anonymity. Most of us knew him as the blogger who went by the name Orac, a name taken from a decades-old British science fiction television show. Orac's real identity didn't stay secret for long, and in recent months, we've seen him referred to in the press by his real name, as you can see in the Hiltzik article. 

Gorski has managed to be effective enough in fighting the antivaccination groups that he has made himself into one of their highest ranking targets. Opponents have complained to his employers and written amazingly nasty stuff about him on the internet. 

The attacks seem to bounce off of Gorski. The reason is that he deals with what comes out of the antivaccination movement and with the attacks on himself by writing truthfully and well about science and scientific medicine. Since he understands science and medicine (because he does them), his essays are convincing. I think that it's also important that his articles have the air of deep honesty about them. 

The other point of interest is that there is, even now, a price that is being paid for the propaganda put out by the antivaccination movement. Just this week, a California school was closed temporarily due to measles. The school is in one of those areas that has a substantial unvaccinated and undervaccinated population of school children. One of the kids was on an overseas trip when he picked up the measles. (Had be been properly vaccinated, he probably would have had a 97% chance of staying well.) Instead, he went to school when he returned home, unaware at the time that he was becoming sick. Since the measles is airborn and incredibly contagious, the school children who have not been vaccinated are being kept out of school. We are possibly witnessing another Disneyland style outbreak. At least this time, it will probably be contained locally. We can hope. 

In an interview with the news media, the makers of the film claimed that the usual suspects -- corporate interests -- had pressured Tribeca to take down their film. Here is one snippet of the comments: "We have just witnessed yet another example of the power of corporate interests censoring free speech, art and truth." And further . . . "Tribeca's action will not succeed in denying the world access to the truth behind the film 'Vaxxed."

This is indeed curious, because as numerous commenters have pointed out, if the authors of Vaxxed want people to see it, all they have to do is put it up on YouTube or Vimeo. Or they can do what other companies do and book a theater. Since Vaxxed has a distributor, that's presumably what they will try to do. Since their film is apparently badly made and dogmatic, it's possible that it has already hit its high point for public relations.

(Bob Gelfand writes on culture, science, and politics for CityWatch. He can be reached at [email protected]


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