Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Followup: Katie Couric Addresses the Criticism...Sort Of

Last week, Katie Couric, award wining reporter and host of her own talk show, Katie, threw journalistic ethics to the wind. She hosted a show on the HPV vaccines, engaging in false balance by propping up two anti-vaccine anecdotes as being not only valid, but equivalent to the scientific evidence supporting the safety and efficacy of the vaccine. The backlash from science bloggers, journalists and the public was fast and brutal, pointing out all the things Ms. Couric (and her producers) did wrong.

When lukewarm justification for the way the show was done appeared on the Katie web site, it was not an apology. It did not correct any of the errors of the show. In short, it failed the ethical obligation to "admit mistakes and correct them promptly". Today, Katie Couric posted an article on the Huffington Post titled Furthering the Conversation on the HPV Vaccine. While it goes part of the way toward correcting things, it isn't quite enough.

While Ms. Couric does spend most of her article on the actual science behind the vaccine, emphasizing that it is effective, safe and lasts longer than was reported on her show, she still attempts to justify including the anti-vaccine activist Rosemary Mathis, founder SaneVax, and Emily Tarsell, who blames her daughter's death on HPV despite the fact that Christina Tarsell had an underlying heart condition and shopped around for a doctor to confirm her beliefs:
As a journalist, I felt that we couldn't simply ignore these reports. That's why we had two mothers on the show who reported adverse reactions after their daughters had been vaccinated for HPV. One could hardly get out of bed for three years, and the other tragically died.
At least Ms. Couric goes on to say that there is no proof the situations are related to the vaccine and that an inordinate amount of time was devoted to the stories. However, even if less time had been devoted to these women who actively oppose a potentially life-saving medicine, why did Ms. Couric not challenge their tales or put them into context? Why did she not emphasize that their stories are just their guess at what happened, and that there was no actual evidence the vaccine was involved at all, or even that there were signs of other causes (e.g., heart problems). This justification also does not absolve Ms. Couric or her producers of the framing of the entire episode. They advertised it in such a way to capitalize on people's fears and emotions, "pandering to lurid curiosity".

Ms. Couric goes on to point out that one aspect she thought critical to driving home to viewers was the importance of pap smears. She notes that research out of Australia (uncited by Ms. Couric, I might point out) found that women are skipping pap smears because they have been vaccinated. While that is an important issue, her show took the stance, through the voice of Dr. Diane Harper, that pap smears were superior to the vaccine and that they were sufficient to prevent cervical cancer. As Ms. Couric says, the vaccine doesn't prevent infection by all strains of HPV, so pap smears are still important. I agree, but that's not how the matter was presented in the original episode. By overemphasizing the value of pap smears, the viewer is left with the impression that the diagnostic screening tool is a 100% effective (there are false positives) tool for preventing cervical cancer and that the vaccine offers no added value. What is left out is the impact of followup exams and procedures when the pap smear comes back positive: emotional strain, additional possibly invasive procedures such as biopsies (which carry risks and financial burdens of their own), not to mention that pap smears do nothing to prevent non-cervical cancers, such as anal, penile or head and neck cancers, all of which are also caused by HPV.

The way Ms. Couric and her producers arranged the show, viewers were presented with a confusing, fear-oriented message about the vaccine's safety and effectiveness at odds with what the science actually says. Despite this, Ms. Couric writes:
Our goal in doing this show was to help parents make an informed decision about the HPV vaccine, not cause irrational fear.
By including anti-vaccine voices, let alone giving them such a large percentage of the airtime, she failed in her goal, if many of the comments on the show's web site and elsewhere are any indication.

My final problem with Katie Couric's Huffington Post article is that she chose to write a blog instead of air an episode correcting the problems of the original. It's great that she wrote it; don't get me wrong. It is important that she take a step like this to correct her errors and emphasize that the weight of evidence is soundly on the side of the vaccine. But how likely is it that her typical viewers will be the same audience to read an online article in the HuffPo? She still fails her viewers in this regard.

In the end, no matter how many times Ms. Couric may apologize, the damage has already been done. She provided anti-vaccine activists with a platform and lengthy video clip that they can point to over and over and over as support for their erroneous position. The comments went unchallenged, lending them legitimacy that they do not deserve. And that is something that Ms. Couric has not addressed. She has taken a step in the right direction, but her blog post is insufficient to reverse the damage she did.

For more reading on the original episode, see the list at the bottom of my previous post.

ETA (12/10/13, 1:30pm): I meant to mention that Katie Couric also did not address the criticism that she should have included interviews with women who have been diagnosed with cervical cancer and gone through the followup procedures that accompany an abnormal pap smear.

1 comment:

  1. I hope she also follows up with some show work making amends. But I agree, she has not reversed the damage. I don't know if that's possible now.


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