The HPV vaccine is considered a life-saving cancer preventer … but is it a potentially deadly dose for girls? Meet a mom who claims her daughter died after getting the HPV vaccine, and hear all sides of the HPV vaccine controversy.This blurb could have been written by the National Vaccine Information Center. Just like NVIC's recent anti-flu vaccine ad and more generic anti-vaccine billboards, the topic is framed to emphasize fear and distrust of the vaccine. And after watching the show, I agree with the numerous critiques that have been levied at Couric and her producers. The flaws with the show have all been stated very capably, so I'm not going to bother repeating them. Nor will I go into detail about the human papillomavirus or the vaccines that prevent infection. If you are interested in learning any of that, take a look at the links down at the bottom of this post.
Instead, I want to talk about the effect that Couric's show may have, not to mention some of the ethical implications involved.
A lot of people have pointed out the issue of false balance involved, or giving more equal weight to arguments that, based on the evidence, are distinctly unequal. Some topics that stem primarily from opinion, like politics or whether a movie is good or bad, can have a "tell all sides" approach. Other topics based on facts and data, such as science or medicine, generally don't have two sides. There are conclusions that have evidence to support them and conclusions that aren't supported or are even contradicted by evidence. The two are not equal nor deserving of equal consideration.
Journalists have a duty to their audiences to "seek truth and report it". The Society of Professional Journalists, one of the oldest professional organizations for journalists in the U.S., has developed a Code of Ethics to help guide journalists toward making ethical decisions, ideals for the highest level of professionalism. Couric and her producers failed to uphold quite a number of these ethical guidelines, starting with the teaser:
- Make certain that headlines, news teases and promotional material, photos, video, audio, graphics, sound bites and quotations do not misrepresent. They should not oversimplify or highlight incidents out of context.
Which leads us to another ethical failing:
- Show good taste. Avoid pandering to lurid curiosity.
As far as the show content, a couple of ethical tenets apply:
- Test the accuracy of information from all sources and exercise care to avoid inadvertent error. Deliberate distortion is never permissible.
- Show compassion for those who may be affected adversely by news coverage. Use special sensitivity when dealing with children and inexperienced sources or subjects.
And it didn't seem that Couric gave much thought to the negative impact of the show. Overall, with greater weight given to the emotional stories aimed to frighten people away from the vaccine than to evidence- and science-based reality, Katie, with its over 2 million viewers, has a very great potential to scare a lot of people away from getting vaccinated. The vaccines, in their short amount of time on the market, have already had a significant impact at reducing HPV infection. And while it is too early to determine what effect the vaccines will have on cervical cancer rates, we can reasonably infer that they will reduce cervical cancers (and other HPV-caused cancers). Less HPV infection means less HPV-caused cancer. Fairly simple, really, but we'll see as time passes and more data come in. Those who watch the show and, because of it, eschew the vaccine are putting themselves (or their children) at increased risk of infection. Not only that, but for those young women who as a result get infected and get an abnormal pap smear result will have to face the spectre of cancer. In addition to the emotional stress, they may need additional testing, such as getting a biopsy, which carries risks of its own. Some of those women will go on to have cancerous lesions requiring more invasive treatment. And this is just cervical cancer. What about penile cancers? Anal? Throat? HPV can cause all of those, too.
What would Ms. Couric or her producers (Eileen King, Tony Maciulis, Lisa Raphael, Lori Beecher, Donna Hunter and Sara Rodriguez) say to those young women? When they air misinformation that convinces people to skip the vaccine that could prevent all those emotional and physical effects of the virus, will they take responsibility or will they try to distance themselves and excuse their behavior?
That brings us to a final ethical consideration:
- Admit mistakes and correct them promptly.
Although I hope that Katie Couric and the rest of the Katie team step up, admit their errors and correct them, I suspect that they will just move right along, ignoring the criticism and washing their hands of the entire affair. It's an all-too-common approach: change topics and hope that people will forget about your gaff. Sadly, it's a tactic that works far better than it should. Worse, though, is that even if they do air a correction, the damage has been done. (ETA: After I finished writing this, I learned that Ms. Couric or a representative of the show will reportedly follow up on this topic today during her Follow Up Friday segment.)
Katie Couric once won the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi Award, which "recognize[s] the best in professional journalism in categories covering print, radio, television, newsletters, art/graphics, online and research". But with this episode, she seems to have thrown away her journalistic integrity. What happened to "Seek Truth and Report It"?
ETA: The Katie Show posted this announcement ahead of their Follow Up Friday episode. In essence, it's a notpology and fairly lame attempt to justify their promotion of nonsense.
ETA (16:35, 6 Dec. 2013): A reader let me know that the show aired, but the topic was not revisited at all. Instead, at the end of the credits was a brief note directing people to the announcement I linked to just above. The announcement does not address any of the actual criticisms of the original episode. For example, it repeats the error that the vaccines only last 5 years, which is demonstrably untrue. In the end, Katie Couric and the producers of the show failed that final ethical tenet; they did not admit their mistakes nor promptly correct them.
Links to other posts about the episode:
- Joanne Bamberger, Guampdn.com - Couric created a faux controversy on vaccine
- Ari Brown, Baby 411 - Here We Go Again. The 411 On HPV Vaccine
- Justin Chura, Cancer Treatment Centers of America - Katie Couric segment on HPV vaccine is a disservice to the public
- Karen Ernst, Moms Who Vax - In the Media, A Bad Day for Vaccines
- Jen Gunter, Dr. Jen Gunter - The real HPV controversy from Katie Couric’s show, her expert
- Tara Haelle, Knight Science Journalism - Guest post: Anti-vaccine fear-mongering back in the mainstream: Katie Couric trades fact for emotion
- Tara Haelle, Politico - Why Is Katie Couric Promoting Vaccine Skeptics?
- Tara Haelle, Red Win and Apple Sauce - Oh, Katie Couric, let us count the ways you screwed up the HPV vaccine coverage
- Matthew Herper, Forbes - Four Ways Katie Couric Stacked the Deck Against Gardasil
- Michael Hiltzik, LA Times - Katie Couric puts the anti-vaccination movement into the mainstream
- Hunter, Daily Kos - Couric's anti-vaccination segment a symptom of wider scientific illiteracy
- Ryan Jaslow, CBS News - Katie Couric show on HPV vaccine sparks backlash
- David Kroll, Forbes - Katie Couric And Cervical Cancer Prevention With The HPV Vaccines, Gardasil And Cervarix
- Amanda Marcotte, The XX Factor - Katie Couric Hands Her Show Over to Anti-Vaccination Alarmists
- Set Mnookin, The Panic Virus - Katie Couric promotes dangerous fear mongering with show on the HPV vaccine.
- Orac, Respectful Insolence - Katie Couric on the HPV vaccine: Antivaccine or irresponsible journalist? You be the judge!
- Phil Plait, Bad Astronomy - Katie Couric Gives Anti-Vaccine Ideas a Shot
- Dorit Reiss, Moms Who Vax - The Costs of the Fight Against the HPV Vaccine
- Alyssa Rosenberg, Think Progress - Why Did Katie Couric Invite Vaccine Deniers On Her Talk Show?
- Alexandra Sifferlin, Time Ideas - Is Katie Couric The Next Jenny McCarthy?
- Skeptical Raptor - Manning the barricades against the anti-HPV vaccine barbarians
- Skewed Distribution - Katie Couric tries and fails to undo the damage
- Tara Smith, Aetiology - The pap smear is no panacea, Katie Couric
- Christine Vara, Shot of Prevention - Victims Katie Couric Neglected To Mention In Her Discussion of HPV
- Emily Willingham, Forbes - Katie Couric Promotes Anticancer Vaccine Alarmism