Yet there was clearly an undisclosed conflict of interest at play, especially since Alison attempted to capitalize on her father’s star power to support her advocacy work. In what Mnookin called “Exhibit A” in why MacNeil’s series has been “reckless and irresponsible,” Alison and SafeMinds—a nonprofit advocacy group that claims, despite much evidence to the contrary, that thimerosal, which has been removed from most vaccines, is related to the development of autism—issued a press release headlined, “Daughter of Journalist Robert MacNeil States that Son Regressed Into Autism After Vaccines.”
“Notice that it does not say ‘Alison MacNeil believes that son regressed into autism after vaccines,’ or ‘Family member featured on Newshour believes son regressed into autism after vaccines,’” Mnookin observed. “Instead, it invokes a trusted, even revered, newsman and links his name to the ‘statement’ that a child’s autism was called by vaccines.”
Mnookin also criticized MacNeil for not providing enough context about one of his expert sources, Martha Herbert, an assistant professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School and a pediatric neurologist with subspecialty certification in neurodevelopmental disabilities at the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.
MacNeil and the NewsHour are not the only ones catching flak for their autism coverage. On April 20, The New York Times Magazine published a feature profile of Andrew Wakefield, the British doctor who fuelled fears of a link between vaccines and autism with a 1998 paper published in the medical journal The Lancet. Last year, the British General Medical Council revoked his license to practice medicine because of professional misconduct, including dishonesty and the unethical treatment of child test subjects. The Lancet immediately retracted the 1998 paper. In January, the British Medical Journal published a series by Brian Deer, a Sunday Times reporter whose investigations prompted the General Medical Council’s inquiry, laying out what the journal’s editors called “an elaborate fraud.” Wakefield is now living Austin, still pushing his debunked theories to crowds of hundreds at a time. Hence the Times Magazine’s profile, by Susan Dominus, who follows him around Texas, analyzing his persistence in the face of one defeat after another. And therein lies the problem with her work. Viewed a certain way, it looks like a martyr, or even hero, story.
In a review, the Knight Science Journalism Tracker’s Paul Raeburn argued that the story was “far from objective”:
We’re too sophisticated here to blame Dominus for the headline, but the editors call Wakefield “an autism guru.” That’s where a writer might stand up and protest, and maybe Dominus did so, and lost.
Every strand of evidence concerning Wakefield and his “study” suggests that it proved nothing and succeeded only as a touchstone for agonized parents of children with autism, desperate for anything that might help their children, or, at the very least, make of their suffering something that would help other children.
That is not the message that Dominus conveys. The Wakefield story has been told over and over again .
So why would the Times do this story now?
Here’s why not to do it: I believe that this story will prompt more parents to refuse to vaccinate their children. Some of those children will suffer or die from illnesses that the vaccines would have prevented.
Raeburn’s analysis sparked penetrating debate between a group of well respected science journalists, many of whom chimed in to applaud it. The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Tom Avril was among them, but he also demurred.
“I did not feel that it restored Wakefield’s reputation in any way,” he wrote. “Instead, I found myself reading the descriptions of him in various settings and marveling at how he is able to carry on his charade. Then again, I imagine that most readers of this site, like me, already know it’s a charade, and would read the article looking for supporting facts. Perhaps the truest test of the Dominus article would be the reaction of ‘regular’ people who had somehow managed not to be well informed on this issue.”