Do Articles About Toxins Causing Autism Cause Hysteria? They Don’t Have To.

New York Times op-ed columnist Nicholas Kristof’s recent piece discussing a study showing a possible link between chemicals in the environment and a rise in autism quickly made it to the top of The Times “most e-mailed” list this week.

The article is notable, not just for its popularity, or for the extremely-big-deal-if-ultimately-true science that it presents, but for the nuanced way Kristof presents it. After all, a column titled, “Do Toxins Cause Autism?” could be roundly admonished for using provocative scare-tactics. But Kristof finds a way to discuss the research without getting hysterical. These two paragraphs of journalistic disclosure are all it takes:

Frankly, these are difficult issues for journalists to write about. Evidence is technical, fragmentary and conflicting, and there’s a danger of sensationalizing risks. Publicity about fears that vaccinations cause autism — a theory that has now been discredited — perhaps had the catastrophic consequence of lowering vaccination rates in America.

On the other hand, in the case of great health dangers of modern times — mercury, lead, tobacco, asbestos — journalists were too slow to blow the whistle. In public health, we in the press have more often been lap dogs than watchdogs.

Cheers to Kristof for not not writing about a tough subject just because the jury is still out and, at the same time, for acknowledging that it’s difficult to tackle such matters when there’s no verdict yet.

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Alexandra Fenwick is an assistant editor at CJR.