The vaccine-autism link controversy

UK investigative journalist Brian Deer was in Toronto last week to lead a panel discussion about the autism-vaccine link controversy, hosted by The Canadian Journalism Foundation (J-Source covered it live). In 1998, medical journal The Lancet published a paper written by Andrew Wakefield that claimed he had discovered a link between autism and the meales mumps rubella (MMR) vaccine. The story was widely published, spread by Wakefield, parents and the occasional uninformed celebrity, resulting in several deaths and an increase in childhood mumps. Deer was the only journalist that thought to investigate Wakefield’s claims, and dug up enough evidence to have the paper officially revoked — but not before the damage was done.

A Globe and Mail panel discussion asks: Why did it take a journalist to expose the fraud? The Montreal Gazette spreads the blame to journalists, for not catching the story sooner, a position shared by Psychology Today. And it’s not just this story: the Stanford School of Medicine found that media coverage of autism differs dramatically from scientific focus. (Writing about autism? Reporters can find helpful resources here and here.)

Meanwhile, journalists are still doing damage control. In 2005, and Rolling Stone magazine co-published a story about Wakefield’s so-called findings. It was still available online at Salon, amended with five corrections, as recently as January, when the publication decided to remove it. Editor-in-chief Kerry Lauerman wrotes that “At the time, we felt that correcting the piece — and keeping it on the site, in the spirit of transparency — was the best way to operate… We’ve grown to believe the best reader service is to delete the piece entirely.”