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How I reported a page-one story on a notoriously discredited anti-vaxxer

How I reported a page-one story on a notoriously discredited anti-vaxxer

Picture of Erin Allday

Honestly, when I saw the email tipping us off that Andrew Wakefield would be speaking at a Bay Area chiropractic school, I sat on it for a few minutes. I didn’t want to cover it. I didn’t want to hassle with traffic on the drive over and I didn’t want to deal with school officials who’d probably boot me off the campus anyway — and most of all, I really didn’t want to give any press to Wakefield, the notoriously discredited scientist responsible for the dangerous autism-via-vaccination myth. But, of course, I told my editors at the San Francisco Chronicle, and of course they sent me there to cover it ASAP (and take a photo too!).

My concerns about getting kicked out of the school were unwarranted — I breezed right on to the campus and casually took notes during the hour-long lecture, in a room packed to capacity with students who paid no attention to me. After Wakefield spoke, Igotsnappeda photo with my iPhone (we had too little time to get a staff photographer there) and introduced myself to the school CEO, who was clearly surprised to see me but was happy to be interviewed. Wakefield — unfortunately or not, I can’t decide — disappeared before I had a chance to talk to him.

It was the right call to cover the event. If Wakefield had just given a lecture to a bunch of chiropractic students about his “science” maybe we wouldn’t have done a story at all, but he ventured far past that into raising a rallying cry against California’s Senate Bill 277, which would end personal belief exemptions that allow parents to opt-out of vaccinating their children. Wakefield joining that battle was legitimate news.

I balked a bit, though, when I got back to the newsroom and our city editor said it would be going on A1. I hate arguing myself off the front page but I felt I had to try in this case — yes, the story would be a big hit online, I got that, but giving Wakefield a “serious news” spot on A1 didn’t sit well with me. I didn’t argue too hard, though, because I knew I’d lose and I understood why it was an obvious front-page story.

I talked with my editor — our usual health editor was out of the office that day — and we agreed that I’d have to very clearly and aggressively point out in my story that while Wakefield had his followers, he was not a man worth listening to. It’s a strange place to write from for a journalist, but one that had become more comfortable over the past few months of covering the Disneyland measles outbreak and ensuing conversations around vaccination. While I think the vaccination story certainly can be nuanced, I don’t see the issue as a debate, and I don’t treat it that way in my coverage. I don’t seek true balance between pro- and anti-vaccination parties, and while I try to give voice to parents who are troubled by vaccines, I always underscore their quotes with facts.

With Wakefield, it was even more important to plainly give context to his words. He’s a man who is undoubtedly famous — notorious — and for better or worse, a voice in the vaccination story. But he’s a dangerous voice, and I don’t say that lightly.

My editor and I had several conversations over the next few hours about how, and whether, I should include Wakefield’s most incendiary comments. We did include several of them in the story, including one quote in which he warned that parents could have their children removed by Child Protective Services if they refuse to get their kids vaccinated. I’d really hoped that the state senators who authored SB277 would want to directly challenge that quote, but (not surprisingly) they didn’t want to touch it.

In the end, my solution to the Wakefield dilemma — how to write a story I wouldn’t regret about a man who is dangerously wrong — was to state plainly that he’s a discredited scientist whose license to practice medicine had been revoked. That he was, and continues to be, wrong. And then I let his words speak for themselves.

I think it worked. I have no regrets, anyway. The reader response was, well, typical for any story about childhood vaccinations. I heard from a couple dozen readers over the following days, most of whom sent long, essay-like emails about why vaccines are dangerous. I only got one email from a reader who was mad we’d given Wakefield any sort of platform.

And the story did great online. It got more than 500 comments on SFGate.com, our free website (only seven comments on our premium pay-wall site, SFChronicle.com, but most of my stories there don’t get any comments at all) and blew up my online metrics all weekend after the story went up on a Friday afternoon. It’s hard to argue with that.

Photo by jimjarmo via Flickr.

Comments

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So I'm not a health educator who uses research reports with alternative outcomes (see some below) than those you rely on for your health decisions but I'm a member of a repulsive category of aberrant human called "antivaxxers." When I wrote The Healthy Baby Book, a guide to parents on preventing birth defects, I learned it was politically correct to say "a person with diabetes" not "a diabetic" because we all are more than our health condition. It is also true for our health politics. If you read The Vaccine Book: Making the Right Decision for Your Child by Robert Sears, MD or The Vaccine Guide: Risks and Benefits for Children and Adults by Randall Neustaedter, OMD, LAc, a concerned parent like myself can plan a reasonable schedule of their child receiving vaccines rather than bombarding a newly formed immune system with 26 doses of 9 vaccines before the first birthday and 48 doses of 14 vaccines by age 6 that by the way include aluminum and formaldehyde. And though I know that means nothing to those of you focused on preventing measles, chicken pox, and other childhood diseases at all costs, may I remind you that those who die and have adverse outcomes from measles have low vitamin A and are malnourished and often immigrants in congested housing situations. Could we focus on public health and welfare for those at risk populations and leave me and my middle class healthy robust child out of the tyrannical "you must insert this material into her body no matter what research you have read causing you concern about these multiple shots."? What we in the US have decided is THE correct schedule isn't agreed upon worldwide. According to http://www.eurosurveillance.org/ViewArticle.aspx?ArticleId=201 "Belgium, Denmark, Italy, and Spain have decided not to use or to discontinue BCG immunisation. Other countries immunise children at high risk only: neonates in Austria, Germany, and Luxemburg, or at 6 months of age in the Netherlands and Sweden. Some countries immunise children at a particular age: at birth in Finland, Ireland, and Portugal, at 6 years in France and Greece, and at 12 years in the United Kingdom. France and the United Kingdom immunise high risk children at birth." So there needs to be room for discussion here in the US and particularly in California of having some say in the schedule of injections let alone the sheer number in total. There is research raising concern in some parents. Their concern doesn't come from God but from scientific studies. I encourage you to look at the research we look at rather than simply decide ahead of time we who are concerned are dangerous to civil society and must be discredited.

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" I don’t seek true balance between pro- and anti-vaccination parties, and while I try to give voice to parents who are troubled by vaccines, I always underscore their quotes with facts."

Thank you and your editors for understanding that "balance" does not mean a pound of wheat is balanced by a pound of chaff. Facts matter, and as an interested Chron subscriber, I think you have done a great job of presenting facts without demonizing the anti-vax parents. Grace under pressure!

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