Networks Nourished Anti-Vaccine Hysteria With 171 Stories on Debunked Autism Link

May 15th, 2014 4:35 PM

Despite the rise in deaths from preventable childhood diseases, the networks spent the last 15 years fueling speculation that vaccines cause autism. Just in the past seven years more than 1,300 died from such diseases, according to CDC data.

The medical community widely refuted such claims and the medical journal that once published the study later retracted it. But for years the broadcast networks continued to report on the alleged connection between vaccines and autism.

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In 171 stories during 15 years of morning and evening news shows, ABC, CBS and NBC reported heavily on the ongoing debate, giving time to prominent anti-vaccine celebrities and families who blamed autism on vaccines.

The 12-person 1998 study that first claimed there was a connection was debunked years ago, yet the networks continued to give the anti-vaccine movement a platform all as some communities’ rates of non-vaccinations rose and children died from diseases that can be vaccinated against.

The networks showcased anti-vaccine activists who suggested there was a government conspiracy on the same level as Enron, while reporters, such as CBS’ Sharyl Attkisson, asked “how could it be wrong to err on the side of caution.” This “balanced” coverage had “a detrimental influence” on vaccination rates.

Anti-Vax: Where it Began

The vaccine and autism controversy began with a 1998 British study by Dr. Andrew Wakefield who examined only 12 children. His study claimed they developed autism after receiving the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine.

Despite the meager sample size of Wakefield’s study, the networks covered this study in 18 stories since it was published including four in-depth interviews with Wakefield in January 2011. In each of those, he was given the opportunity to defend his debunked research and claim the criticism was part of a conspiracy against him.

Many sources including the San Francisco Chronicle and the Los Angeles Times attribute a CBS “60 Minutes” interview with Wakefield in 2000 for bringing his views to prominence in America. Since then, Wakefield lost his medical license amidst accusations of fraud and conflicts of interest, and The Lancet, the British medical journal that published his study, publicly retracted it.

Most of the interviews with Wakefield focused on those allegations of fraud, which were still unproven. But in the interviews none of the network journalists asked him to justify the puny sample size of his study, although they called it “small.” A quick examination of his 12 person study would have exposed serious flaws.

Instead, the networks insisted on debating the science. Matt Lauer’s May 24, 2010, “Today” interview with Wakefield was just one example. Dr. Ben Goldacre, a pro-vaccine physician, called that interview “staggeringly weak” while blasting journalists who “[say] ‘let’s debate the science.'” Instead, Goldacre suggested “press[ing] them hard on the obvious simple holes in their claim.”

Since the Wakefield study, anti-vaccine sentiment rose in the U.S. and many parents refused vaccinations, especially the MMR vaccine, for their children. Recent measles outbreaks reflect the consequences of Wakefield’s study and its coverage. In fact, 189 people contracted measles in 2013, according to the Center For Disease Control’s (CDC) website.

The CDC’s Health Communications Specialist James McDonald told the MRC’s Business and Media Institute that measles outbreaks can be blamed on refusals to vaccinate children. Specifically, he described a measles outbreak in Marin County, California where three-quarters of unvaccinated children were unvaccinated due to “personal belief exemptions,” where parents refused vaccines for nonmedical reasons.

Over the years, the prevalence of anti-vaccine sentiment has caused numerous deaths. The website “Jenny McCarthy Body Count,” which compiled CDC data between June 2007 and April 2014, found that 1,387 people died from vaccine preventable diseases, with over 130,000 reported illnesses.

Networks Enabled the Controversy to Continue

While the networks, especially NBC’s medical editor Nancy Snyderman, emphasized that there was no established causal connection between vaccines and autism, they gave continued life to the controversy by heavily reporting the alleged connection.

The networks insisted on debating science with anti-vaccine activists, as evident in the 2010 interview with Wakefield. For example, on Aug. 30, 2009, NBC correspondent Lester Holt began a “Nightly News” vaccine story calling it “One of the most bitterly debated questions in medicine.” Later in that segment, NBC played a clip of one of the few doctors receptive to the autism-vaccine connection to bolster the false notion that there was actually a debate within the medical community.

This portrayal of balance actively spread disinformation by misleading viewers into believing anti-vaccine positions were backed by scientific empirical studies.

In fact, a study by Cornell University researchers in 2012 found that portraying anti-vaccine positions alongside medical facts about vaccines actively increased readers’ likelihood of succumbing to anti-vaccine rhetoric. This was even true when the medical facts debunked anti-vaccine rhetoric.

Authors of that Cornell study, Graham Dixon and Christopher Clarke, wrote “Participants who read the balanced article were less certain that vaccines are safe, more likely to believe experts were less certain that vaccines are safe and less likely to have their future children vaccinated.”

In addition, Dr. Bill Ahearn, Director of Research at the New England Center for Children, wrote in Psychology Today in 2010 that the “impact of the media’s coverage of this issue has had a significant and detrimental influence” in spreading disinformation and discouraging parents from vaccinating.

A Platform for Anti-Vaxxers

More than simply covering the connection, some reporters, including former CBS reporter Sharyl Attkisson who reported anecdotes and interviewed many families convinced that vaccines caused their children’s autism.

Attkisson was particularly prone to report such anecdotes. Some segments, such as May 18, 2004, “Evening News” began and ended with minute long interviews with parent who blamed vaccines for their children’s autism. She even ended that story by asking, “How can it be wrong to err on the side of caution?”

In a similar broadcast on June 12, 2004, Attkisson included an anti-vaccination parent at a rally who claimed, “The CDC is going to become the Enron of the vaccine industry.” The Enron Corporation had recently collapsed in part due to fraudulent financial practices.

Years later, on April 21, 2014, Attkisson defended her vaccine reporting to CNN’s “Reliable Sources,” calling them “some of the most important stories I’ve done.”

The networks also allowed former Playboy model and actress Jenny McCarthy to criticize vaccines in their stories, interviewing her eight times about her opinion on autism and vaccinations. In 2013,  ABC even gave McCarthy a job as co-host of the talk show “The View.”

McCarthy was undeterred by her lack of scientific credentials. In 2007, she proudly told Oprah Winfrey that she was educated by “the University of Google,” encouraging other parents to research vaccines on the Internet, as opposed to relying on doctors with actual medical degrees. She also claimed she fixed her son’s autism, according to The Huffington Post.

Network journalists also interviewed Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., a prominent anti-vaccine conspiracy theorist. Most notably, on “Evening News” July 14, 2005, Attkisson asked Kennedy to expound on his anti-vaccine views. She ended the segment declaring that, with “the Kennedy name attached” the controversy “seems destined to survive for now.”

His views, however, are quite extreme. In 2005, Kennedy published a piece entitled “Deadly Immunity” on and the Rolling Stone. Salon later retracted it saying they lost “any faith we had in the story’s value.” In this column, Kennedy alleged a vast conspiracy by the CDC to cover up the problems with thimerosal, a vaccine preservative that contains mercury. He called this cover-up “one of the biggest scandals in the annals of American medicine.”

Methodology: The Media Research Center’s Business and Media Institute reviewed all network morning and evening show transcripts containing the words autism and vaccine. Each of these transcripts were reviewed by hand.