As a reader, have you ever wondered “Why is the reporting on vaccines and the vaccine-autism connection so one sided?” There is an answer that bloggers, the NIH and many media sources will provide. False balance. Because according to every mainstream media outlet, the autism-vaccine debate has been “settled”, there is “no link,” and the science they have provided is on their side as the final word on the subject. To show the other side of the issue, the one that parents have experienced and other scientists around the world have conducted research studies on is referred to as “false balance or false equivalence.”
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia:
False balance, also referred to as false equivalence, is a real or perceived media bias, where journalists present an issue as being more balanced between opposing viewpoints than the evidence actually supports. Journalists may present evidence and arguments out of proportion to the actual evidence for each side, or may censor information which would establish one side’s claims as baseless.
An example of issues sometimes handled with false balance are pseudoscience, as when a national nightly news program in the United States gave coverage to a backyard inventor who claimed to have invented a perpetual motion machine. The program presented scientific authorities to explain why such a device was impossible, but since they gave equal time to the claims of the inventor, it may have created a false impression with audiences that his claims were credible. False balance is often found in political reports, company press releases, and general information from entities with special interest in promoting their respective agendas.
Other examples of false balance in reporting on science issues include the topics of man-made vs. natural climate change, the relation between Thimerosal and autism and evolution vs. intelligent design.
Giving equal voice to scientists on both sides makes it seem like there is a debate within the scientific community, even though there is a scientific consensus.
By citing false balance in media coverage regarding vaccines as the basis to deny balanced reporting on the vaccine-autism link, the topic is effectively being controlled by those who have proclaimed the matter closed. When you stop asking questions and discourage respectful discussion and research, society as a whole loses. When did it become acceptable for the media to control our access to information? What happened to showing two sides of an issue and then trusting the reader to make their own judgments and decisions? The concept of false balance happened, a convenient term for letting the reader know that by having access to reports and studies claimed to have been discredited, their capability to form thoughtful conclusions has been compromised. The mainstream writer, having provided all the scientific research necessary to prove their own claims credible, asserts there is no decision to be made. Unquestionable authority has been established. Market research has shown that the target audience for advertisers is affluent, college educated, socially-conscious consumers. But depending on what site the reader relies on for news, this same audience is a bunch of Whole Foods shopping, Prius driving, affluent selfish anti-vaxxers using their right to an exemption as a trendy status symbol. Is it possible that this audience is capable of analyzing information to make a careful informed choice? Yes – as long as it is the one the media influences you to make.
Recently, a doctor, that over the past few years has become synonymous with the topic of childhood vaccinations and his hardline views in favor of the current schedule was the keynote speaker at Health Journalism 2014.
At this annual meeting for the Association for Health Care Journalists, Anne Dachel, Media editor at Age of Autism writes that he “called on broadcast and print reporters to avoid the “he-said, she-said reporting” that perpetuates false controversies in science and medicine.” On the Forbes.com website, he is quoted as responding to Forbes contributor Dan Diamond, when asked if journalists, “write stories about the “debate” on vaccines – and then people die from not getting vaccinated – are they party to murder?” Offit responded with the idea that we should have “journalism jail” for such individuals.
News reports have mentioned that scientists are developing a program to alert readers to the truthfulness regarding social media pieces. If the publishers that dominate the information landscape are the ones in charge of deciding what is a legitimate viewpoint on a particular topic, how is this not the beginning of censorship disguised as truth in reporting? This makes the act of researching both sides of an issue as important as medical care and childhood vaccinations, away from blog posts and internet news sites critical.
As we enter the digital Information Age, it is important to bear in mind that the rules have changed. With individuals accessing news and facts in real time on mobile devices, so have the merchants of entertainment adapted to retain the power they once held at the newsstand and television news station. Now, more than ever, it is extremely important to take a thoughtful stance in how you consume this product as it comes with no warning label, and over time slowly becomes accepted instead of questioned when it comes to our lives and those of our children.