Media lessons from the Wakefield autism controversy

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Journalists have much to learn in the wake of the Lancet’s retraction of a study it published 12 years ago making the case that autism could be caused by vaccines. The Wall Street Journal wrote:

“The journal finally issued a full retraction of a study it ran in 1998 linking measles-mumps-rubella vaccines to autism. The paper, with Dr. Andrew Wakefield as lead author, sent British parents fleeing from inoculations and fed U.S. alarm over preservatives in vaccines.

Even in 1998, overwhelming scientific evidence showed vaccines to be safe. Yet the press-savvy Dr. Wakefield had been getting headlines for his research, and the Lancet’s publication fed the controversy by giving him an aura of respectability.”

And here’s the CBS piece on the retraction: Study Linking Autism to Vaccine Retracted

Lessons for journalists and for the public:

• Publication in a peer-reviewed medical journal does NOT mean that the science is sound or that the finding is gospel truth.

• As the WSJ wrote, “The Lancet episode shows how even reputable publications can become conduits for junk science when political causes run hot. Especially amid the scandal over politically motivated climate science, the public needs professional journals to be scrupulous about their standards and honest about the science.”

• Journalists must learn to scrutinize evidence. They must see that the weight of evidence means something.

• Journalists and the public must learn from this example how much harm can be done by premature and imbalanced coverage of scientific claims.

• Finally, a good news story about journalism. Gutsy investigative journalism can make a difference. Some journalists – most notably Brian Deer – did the digging that exposed Wakefield and his flawed claims.


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