How reporters can avoid making folk heroes out of vaccine doubters

Published on
November 1, 2016

One of the most interesting stories this election season was the one about how many reporters have donated to the Clinton campaign.

It seems to be an obvious admission of bias and the news led to much tsk-tsking among media watchers. But, on the health beat, I think something quite similar has been happening that has gone unnoticed.

You might call it the “basket of anti-vax deplorables” problem.

Hillary referred to some Trump supporters as a “basket of deplorables,” and immediately alienated and potentially emboldened a bunch of people to turn out on Election Day and vote for Trump. Similarly, the general trend in mainstream journalism is to treat anyone who has doubts about the medical efficacy or safety of vaccines as dumb, crazy, dangerous, or all three.

The problem with this approach is that it makes people feel threatened or condescended to, and when they feel this way, they tend to lock arms with like-minded people not engage in a serious discussion about the science at issue.

The latest example is the embattled Dr. Bob Sears. For many, the Sears family replaced Dr. Benjamin Spock as the most trusted pediatricians on the planet. Bob, his father Bill, his mother Martha, and his brother Jim co-authored “The Baby Book,” a go-to for parents.

So when Bob Sears started saying things that cast doubt on the standard vaccination schedules and even criticized laws that required children to be vaccinated, it was understandably a big deal.

Another family book, published in 2007, suggested an alternative vaccine schedule for parents concerned about following the recommended vaccine schedule issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices. In “The Vaccine Book,” Sears does not explicitly say that vaccines are causing autism or other disorders, but he casts doubt by saying things like this:

Parents who have watched helplessly as their child develops neurological problems within weeks of being vaccinated will probably always be 100 percent convinced that the vaccine caused the problems. The fact that neurological complications are listed in the product inserts lends credibility to their case.

He drew fire and, ultimately, the attention of the Medical Board of California. As Rong-Gong-Lin, Soumya Karlamangla, and Rosanna Xia at the Los Angeles Times wrote:

At the heart of the case is whether Sears used sound medical practices when he wrote a doctor’s note for a 2-year-old boy, saying he should have “no more routine childhood vaccines for the duration of his childhood.” In its six-page accusation, the medical board said Sears made that conclusion without obtaining even basic medical information, such as a detailed history of vaccines the boy previously received and any reactions that occurred, before deciding to recommend against future immunizations.

What Sears did is very consistent with his family’s whole approach to parenting advice. One of the reasons their books are so popular is that they are so focused on letting parents chart the course that is best for them and their children. In describing “attachment parenting,” for example, they write:

Attachment parenting implies first opening your mind and heart to the individual needs of your baby, and eventually you will develop the wisdom on how to make on-the-spot decisions on what works best for both you and your baby.

And I think that is part of what’s missing when reporters write about Sears. They aren’t thinking the way a doctor would think when presented with a parent who has fears about vaccines. Such parents may be 100 percent wrong on the science of the matter, but Sears is all about individual choices. It’s what has made him and his family heroes to parents. And attacking him for questioning the standard vaccine schedule – which is different from denying the safety and efficacy of vaccines overall – is only going to make him a folk hero to the anti-vaccine movement.

How might someone who is a supporter of Sears take a quote like this?

Either this whole thing is a fraud, or, just as bad, he’s doing very poor work on behalf of his patients by not investigating and finding out what actually happened. … No matter how you slice it, this is horrible.

That’s another physician quoted in a Forbes piece – repeatedly – about Dr. Sears’ medical board case. These quotes seem beyond critical. They seem angry.


Because doctors care about people doing the right thing by their kids. I get it. But it’s also because they can get away with saying things about Bob Sears that they wouldn’t be able to say about some random vaccine doubter. Sears is without question a public figure who could never successfully sue for libel.

So the Sears critics shout. And reporters who quote them are shouting, too.

Again, this is kind of the "basket of deplorables" problem. You will never penetrate the anti-vaccine echo chamber with demonization and cries of outrage. You clearly won't win just on science either.

The trick is to stay as focused on the facts as possible and not create another anti-vaccine folk hero. Sears is quickly becoming Andrew Wakefield, but a hundred times more powerful.

If you want to counter the culture of vaccine doubt, you need an intellectual vaccine, not an antibiotic that that just makes them more virulent.

So be careful who you quote and how you characterize people like Sears and their supporters. Take their concerns at face value. That doesn’t mean giving equal weight to the claims that they make or the science they try to cite to support their claims. But it does mean treating them with respect and not assuming ill intent or idiocy at every turn.

Full disclosure: All my kids are fully vaccinated. We all had flu shots last week, too. And yet when someone starts talking to me about how they want to space out their vaccines for their kids, I don’t shout at them. I listen to them, and then I try to explain – without condescension – that vaccines are among our safest, most effective, and most tried and true medications. Believe it or not, it sometimes works.