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.”
Avril makes a strong case. The profile seemed fairly condemnatory to me, but easily might not to someone less familiar with Wakefield’s history. There’s no easy solution to this readership dilemma. There was certainly room for Dominus to be even more critical of Wakefield, but that doesn’t address whether she should have written the story at all. The Wall Street Journal’s Robert Lee Hotz took issue with Raeburn on that point:
Whatever the merits or flaws of this particular profile, you seem to be making a broader point about news coverage that I find troubling: that a responsible journalist should cover this continuing public health controversy by ignoring the people responsible for it. To answer the rhetorical question you pose in your post here, I suspect the New York Times did this story now precisely because despite a decade of efforts to set people straight about this, the misconceptions — oddly and heart-breakingly — persist. For better or worse, Wakefield is the cause of this and remains a public figure whose behavior and motives should be examined in public light.
It’s a tough call. A similar debate about the coverage of iconoclasts erupted in April 2009 when the magazine profiled Freeman Dyson, who questions the science underlying manmade climate change. A reporter doing such a story should think carefully and honestly about the actual influence wielded by the subject of the profile. Two recent surveys found that about 93 percent of parents said their children either had or were going to get all of the recommended vaccinations. According to Dominus, Wakefield drew a crowd of about 250 when he spoke at Graceview Baptist Church in Tomball, Texas, one Saturday morning in January. That’s not a huge number, but of course many more still seek his guidance. Enough to justify the profile? It’s hard to say, because Dominus fails to deliver on the story’s central promise—a real sense of the reach of Wakefield’s lingering influence.
In that sense, some parts of MacNeil’s PBS report are actually more constructive than the Times’s profile. Autism is a growing problem in United States; it is estimated that between one in eight and one in 240—with an average of one in 110—children in the United States fall somewhere on the spectrum. More resources are needed to support children and adults, and MacNeil conveyed that effectively. It is a shame, though, that he doesn’t seem to understand where he went wrong, and that he has not responded more directly to criticism.
MacNeil was on The Emily Rooney Show, which airs on WGBH in Boston, on April 19 and was asked (around minute 10:00) about Mnookin’s charge that his the NewsHour series was “irresponsible.”
“Well, he’s entitled to his opinion and to sell his book,” MacNeil replied.
That may so, but that doesn’t make Mnookin wrong. MacNeil could have produced a worthwhile series about autism, but a lack of good journalistic judgment ended up marring the effort.