Friday, December 6, 2013

Katie Couric Chooses Ratings Over Ethics

The blogosphere, Twitter, even mainstream news outlets have been abuzz about a recent episode of Katie Couric's show Katie. The episode, which aired December 4, 2013, was on the HPV vaccine, a vaccine that prevents infection with a virus that causes cervical cancer, head and neck cancers, warts and so forth. To give you an idea of how Couric and her producers were going to frame the discussion, here's what the teaser said:
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.
The teaser creates the false impression that the vaccine can kill, despite the fact that no evidence supports that conclusion. It also puts forth the idea that there is a controversy around the vaccine. There is certainly a vocal minority asserting that the vaccine is dangerous, and social conservatives who vilify the vaccine due to religious beliefs, but these are not real controversies. They are manufactroversies with no evidence to support them. And as far as the science goes, there isn't any controversy. Despite these lapses, the teaser certainly does grab attention.

Which leads us to another ethical failing:
  • Show good taste. Avoid pandering to lurid curiosity.
Couric and her producers play on people's fears and exploit the death of a young woman to get people to tune in. The way the teaser is phrased, and indeed the way the entire episode is framed, the show appears to be going for ratings, rather than accuracy, playing on emotions just to get more viewers, rather than trying to impart accurate, useful information to people. It's a tactic more common in yellow journalism outlets like Fox News or The Enquirer than what one would expect from someone like Katie Couric, who has a history of award-winning coverage.

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.
Like I mentioned earlier, others have already written about the factual errors and other failings of the show. Just a few examples: asserting the vaccine causes a wide range of adverse health effects, including death, despite no evidence to support such claims; asserting the vaccine loses efficacy after 5 years despite evidence showing it lasts at least 5-8 years, a figure limited by the research that's been done; implying that screening using pap smears is sufficient to prevent HPV-related complications, even though they won't prevent follow-up of abnormal results and are useless at finding, let alone preventing, head and neck cancers caused by the virus and so on. Plenty of misinformation, factual errors and deliberate distortions by some of the sources.

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.
Will Ms. Couric admit the mistakes she and her team made in this episode? Will she air a follow-up episode focused on the science and correcting the factual errors they made?

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:


  1. Thank you Todd. Here's another for your list.

  2. Two others for your list if you care to add them: my round-up at Red Wine & Apple Sauce is

    My longer analysis is over at Knight Science Journalism Tracker:


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