Thursday, August 14, 2014

For Balance, We Turn To... - Jen Eyer Edition

This seems to be the week for lazy journalists falling for the false balance that is the epitome of sloppy reporting. I had originally planned to write about this particular bit of nonsense yesterday, but the article giving a platform to anti-vaccine bully Becky Estepp took precedence. Also, Dr. Steven Novella and Orac both beat me to the punch. But, there's still plenty of meat in the story to go around.

I'm talking about the latest verbal vomitus from anti-vaccine activist Mary Tocco, titled No one should be forced to vaccinate their children". Ms. Tocco's letter was in response to a science-based op-ed, "Anti-vaccination movement threatens the health, safety and well-being of Michigan children", by Dr. Anthony F. Ogjnan and Dr. Sandro Cinti. The original letter is well worth the read, particularly for those who live in Michigan and are concerned about their legislators being gulled by the dishonest misinformation campaigns of anti-vaccine groups, like Michigan Opposing Mandatory Vaccines (MOMV - apparently Ms. Tocco is as bad at making acronyms as she is at everything else, since she calls it "MOM", i.e., "Michigan Opposing Mandatory"). Ms. Tocco's response is an exercise in name that logical fallacy and an excellent illustration of how "research" (in anti-vaccine world) is a far cry from actual research in the real world. I'm not going to delve into her letter very much, since Dr. Novella and Orac both covered a good deal of what was wrong with it, but I will point my readers to discussions of how Ms. Tocco she tried to twist the Bible to support her ideology.

What I want to focus on is the person responsible for giving Ms. Tocco space to spew her bile, Michigan Live's Director of Community Engagement, Jen Eyer.

The primary issue here is that Ms. Eyer is putting Mary Tocco up as if her opinion were of equal weight when it comes to the science of vaccines and public health policy. One op-ed goes up in favor of vaccines and critical of the misleading tactics and misinformation used by MOMV. Another goes up defending MOMV and their anti-vaccine nonsense. In the public's eye, this gives the impression that the two opinions hold equal weight, based on equal evidence. It is a perfect example of false balance, where the uncritical journalist cares more about being what they consider fair, rather than going with what is justified by the evidence.

Here are some facts from the original op-ed by Drs. Ogjnan and Cinti:
  • Vaccines are safe and effective - this is supported by the abundance of scientific literature and the scientific and medical communities worldwide. The benefits of vaccination overwhelming outweigh the risks.
  • Anti-vaccine activists, such as MOMV, have worked to make Michigan's immunization rates some of the lowest in the country.
  • MOMV is an anti-vaccine organization - their spokesperson, Mary Tocco, has a history of misinforming readers, and the link she provides for "more information" is www.novaccine.com, a site that tries to tell as many bad things about vaccines as possible, fabricating some claims, and saying pretty much nothing positive about any vaccine. MOMV itself provides as links for further...ahem..."research", mostly links to other anti-vaccine organizations. The MOMV site includes only a couple grudging links to reliable sites, such as the CDC, but even then tries to denigrate them.
  • Vaccine preventable diseases (VPDs) are dangerous - while most will recover without significant harm, a not insignificant minority do suffer serious sequelae. For example, measles, which is currently higher than the last four years combined (and only 15 cases shy of the last 5 years combined), has a complication rate of around 20%, the most common being pneumonia, with 0.1% suffering encephalitis or death. Pertussis, likewise, has caused 199 patients to be hospitalized this year, just in California. Of those, 19% required intensive care, and it has killed three children.
  • VPDs are especially dangerous for infants and those with compromised immune systems
  • Despite the known risks of the diseases and proven safety of the vaccines, anti-vaccine groups, like MOMV, try to convince people that vaccines are unsafe or ineffective. Again, see Ms. Tocco's choice link for abundant examples of this.
  • Vaccines are constantly monitored for safety and efficacy - Unlike the majority of medical products, vaccines are under continuous surveillance from multiple sources. The authors only mention VAERS, but there is also the Vaccine Safety Datalink, myriad independent researchers, mandated post-approval studies by the manufacturers, annual review of the data by the ACIP and so on.
  • Lawmakers have a choice between science and fiction.
Those are all matters of fact. Not opinion. The closest the original op-ed comes to opinion is saying that groups like MOMV are dangerous and threaten the health, safety and well-being of people in the state. Against that, Jen Eyer gives space for Tocco's delusions:
  • MOMV is not anti-vaccine - already belied by the MOMV web site and Ms. Tocco's current and past behavior and words on the topic of vaccines.
  • MOMV encourages informed vaccine decision-making - again, by directing their readers to unreliable sites shown to omit important information, exaggerate the risks of vaccines and downplay their efficacy, and portray diseases as not only mild and harmless, but beneficial, they encourage misinformed decision-making
  • Tocco suggests that the authors say MOMV should not have the right to question legislators regarding their stance on topics ("we have the right to ask where the candidates stand on this important rights and health issue") - it was never a question of whether or not they have that right; of course they do. However, having the right does not mean they are exempt from criticism for how they ask the questions.
  • Tocco has never seen a study proving the unvaccinated have reduced health - then despite her decades of research, she is either incompetent, willfully ignorant, lying, or a combination of those. Here is just one study: Vaccination status and health in children and adolescents (Schmitz, et al., 2011), which found that the only significant difference between vaccinated and unvaccinated children was that the unvaccinated suffered more vaccine-preventable illnesses than the vaccinated.
  • Children who recover from VPDs have lifelong immunity - as I noted the other day, that's not necessarily true. Immunity wanes, regardless of the source. For some diseases, it's rapid (e.g., influenza). For some it is very slow (e.g., measles). How long-lasting the immunity is depends on the disease/vaccine, except that immunity from the disease comes at the cost of significantly increased risk of serious complications as compared to the vaccines.
Nothing in Tocco's piece is based on sound science. As opposed to Drs. Ognjan and Cinti's article, Tocco's is nothing but opinion and flights of fancy. And that's the problem with Eyer's decision to give Tocco a platform. Those of us who are familiar with the topic, familiar with the players and have put in the time and hard work to evaluate anti-vaccine claims can see Tocco's rant for what it is, a whinging flurry of words designed to sow doubt and uncertainty about vaccines and play on readers' emotions to get them to oppose vaccines.

But getting to that point, being able to recognize Tocco's BS for what it is, takes a lot of effort. Tracking down the science, reading the articles and understanding them takes time, far more than the average reader is likely going to invest. That is why it's the journalist's job to give time and space according to the merits of the arguments. Eyer failed her readers and received quite justified criticism for it in the comments. Yet rather than owning up to her mistake and correcting her misstep, she shirked responsibility:
@EAB Since the original guest column sharply criticized the MOM organization, we gave them the ability to respond. However, please be aware that the final version you see here is drastically different from what was initially submitted. We required that many claims unsupported by science be removed, and the rest is presented as Tocco's opinion.

Our goal is to foster debate. I understand that in the minds of many, as well as the medical establishment, there is no debate here. But the fact remains that our state law allows parents to opt out of vaccinating their children for "philosophical" reasons, and a growing number of parents are choosing to do so. As a news organization, we do need to show both sides, but we must do so responsibly. By not allowing unsupported claims to be stated as fact, that is what we've done here.

I don't expect readers to necessarily agree, but I do feel it's important that people understand that we operate based on principles of fairness and truth.
Many commenters are fair to ask Ms. Eyer if she would give space to, say, Holocaust deniers, moon hoaxers or Stormfront. State exemption laws no more legitimize Tocco's viewpoint than the First Amendment legitimizes white supremacist hate speech. Where there is legitimate room for debate (for instance, whether state funds should be spent on proposal A or proposal B), it is, by all means, appropriate to give space to both sides. However, where there is science and fact on the one side and fiction, misrepresentation and lies on the other, there is no debate. That Eyer claims that "many claims unsupported by science" were suppose to be removed from Tocco's letter makes me shudder at what the original piece was like. Perhaps Ms. Eyer could learn something from John Oliver:



But Eyer is not willing to stop while she's behind:
This column has generated a lot of passionate responses. It's important to note that it's not MLive, but rather state law that "legitimizes" Ms. Tocco's point of view, by allowing parents to opt out of vaccinating their children for "philosophical" reasons. That exemption was the basis for the initial guest column as well as this response. As long as that exemption is in place, the question remains open for public debate. Those who strongly object may wish to channel that passion into effecting a change in that law.
No, Ms. Eyer. State law does not "legitimize" Ms. Tocco's view that vaccines are evil incarnate, that they are useless, that they are dangerous, or that VPDs are better than the vaccines that prevent them. And make no mistake, that is Tocco's viewpoint and what drives her to oppose any and all efforts to improve public health through vaccination. It is MLive and, more specifically, Jen Eyer, that legitimizes Tocco's message, by putting it on equal footing with the scientific and medical consensus, as expressed by Drs. Ognjan and Cinti.

Eyer's protestations notwithstanding, by giving Mary Tocco a platform to spread her misinformation, Eyer is not promoting responsible debate, but instead being a lazy journalist and engaging in sensationalism. As one commenter notes, pieces like Tocco's are published to drive up ad revenue and generate clicks. And assuredly Eyer has more than accomplished that. As I write this, there are 1069 comments and counting.

Jen Eyer should be ashamed of herself for sacrificing journalistic integrity for the sake of some misplaced sense of post-modernist "fairness" that only serves to confuse and mislead her readers. I happen to know a young group of journalists that would be appalled at her behavior. Ms. Eyer, if you happen to read this, please do the right thing. Own up to your mistake and correct your wrong.

But then, this is all just my opinion.

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