Media balance at a tipping point
Shot in the arm ... vaccination is a key to protecting the wider community.
WATCHING the commercial television news, you have to wonder what chance doctors and scientists have of informing the community about the real health risks we face.
On Monday last week, the Australian Academy of Science launched a booklet answering questions on immunisation and seeking to enhance public understanding of how vaccinations provide protection from infectious diseases.
The academy sought to soothe concerns about the risks from immunisation and highlight the danger in falling rates of vaccination.
Given the way Channel Nine news handled the issue, the academy may as well not have bothered. The newsreader's introductory line - ''Doctors fear a resurgence of diseases like measles and whooping cough unless more children are vaccinated'' - was fine, but the reporter then jumped to a mother of eight children who said she had had her six eldest immunised and of these three had autism, one had language difficulties, one was ADHD and the sixth had food allergies. She didn't get her last two immunised.
The implication from this report is that her children's ailments can be attributed to vaccinations.
A huge number of studies have now been conducted on the claim that vaccinations cause autism. The Academy of Science points out in its booklet that these studies have shown conclusively that the rate of autism is the same among children who have had vaccinations, as among those who have not. It should also be noted that the original report that set this autism hare running was shown to be fraudulent and was retracted by the medical journal that published it.
We don't know what causes autism, or if indeed there is more than one cause of the condition we call autism. Clinging to false leads only hampers the search to find the real cause. Three autistic children in one family might lead investigators to consider genetic causes. Another possibility might be the environment.
No purpose is served by raising the one suspect the jury has definitively found ''Not Guilty''.
Some journalists will argue that in giving airspace to the anti-vaccination lobby they are being ''balanced,'' in much the same way as some feel they must give equal space, in the climate change debate, to the lobby group of deniers.
This demonstrates a poor understanding of the concept of media balance and the obligation to provide a forum for a variety of views. Every nutter in the community is not entitled to have his or her view transmitted via the national media. Should we give equal space to the political views of Norwegian bomber and murderer, Anders Behring Breivik?
On almost any issue there are a huge variety of views and many alternative ways of presenting a selection. If a mining company issues a press release announcing a major intersection of high grade nickel on its lease in the Northern Territory, a financial journalist might immediately consider the impact of the find on the share price. Is a mine viable? What do the geologists and mining engineers think? An environmental reporter might look at where the discovery is located. Will a mine there significantly damage the environment? Expert opinion should be sought. Another might consider indigenous land rights.
It's perfectly legitimate to seek comment on any one of these issues. But in the end the significance and qualifications of the individuals who seek to comment must be weighed up.
A nickel find in an already established mining region is likely to be of less environmental concern than one on the Arnhem Land escarpment. The views of the traditional Aboriginal elders who have rights to the land are of more relevance than the views of a blow-in from the south.
Nothing lifts a story better than a good personal case study. In the case of the Academy of Science book launch, Channel Nine could have interviewed the parents of a child hospitalised with whooping cough, or even better shown footage as a baby gasped for breath. That's dramatic and it's a real danger. There were 21,116 notifications of whooping cough in 2012, and three deaths in 2010. Epidemic whooping cough peaks occurred every three to four years.
Instead of drawing attention to this, the network promoted the false autism link.
One of the reasons the authorities are trying to increase vaccination levels across Australia is that having more people vaccinated increases protection due to ''herd immunity''. If say 90 per cent of the population is vaccinated against measles, one individual with the disease is surrounded by nine who are protected against it. The disease can only be spread if the individual with it comes into contact with another unvaccinated person.
Put these figures in reverse and a serious problem arises. If most people do not get vaccinated, then, when the disease strikes, it will spread like wildfire.
There was no vaccine for polio when I was young. When an outbreak occurred in the 1950s parents around the world lived in fear. Like everyone else, I knew children who were struck down and paralysed. I didn't personally know any who died, but many did. Today, thanks to vaccination, the incidence of the disease in Australia is low, with only four hospitalisations a year.
It's a similar story with the other diseases we vaccinate against. Measles may seem to be a minor childhood illness, but then I recall the trauma of my journalist colleagues Ken and Gay Davidson when their daughter, Kiri, faded away and died from rare complications after getting the disease.
Journalists who continue to ''balance'' their reports by giving airplay to uninformed people, who spout nonsense about why they are not getting vaccinated are potentially setting the scene for a new round of epidemics in Australia. When the death notices appear, they should step forward and claim responsibility thanks to their ''balanced'' reporting.