Gambling with infectious disease

Las Vegas's CBS affiliate, KLAS TV, shows what not to do in vaccination reporting

SANTA BARBARA, CA — Sometimes, a headline pretty much tells the whole, journalistically horrifying story. Late in July, Las Vegas CBS affiliate KLAS TV broadcast a short video report on back-to-school immunizations; the accompanying web article sported this headline, “Doctors Debate Need for Child Vaccinations.”

Well, no, they don’t, actually. The medical consensus in support of a standard series of childhood vaccinations is overwhelming. But the ensuing KLAS article (which closely tracks the station’s video report) essentially ignored reams of science that supports the efficacy and safety of immunization in protecting children from serious, often lethal diseases, in favor of exploring this jaw-dropping straw argument: “Vaccines have been debated for years in the medical field. While some doctors believe they are vital to a child’s health, other doctors believe in a more natural approach to disease prevention.”

In an unfortunate and disheartening display of false balance and failed reporting, KLAS reporter Diane Tuazon then proceeded to play out the alleged “debate” over immunizations by quoting a local pediatrician, who (along with the world’s assembled medical establishment) supports vaccination, and a local “holistic physician” who said parents should consider a variety of factors as they decide whether they are going to vaccinate their kids and look into “alternatives to vaccination.” The report goes on to assert that holistic doctors say parents should research “how to use diet to reduce the risk of infection.”

The KLAS report sparked intense reader/viewer outrage, as shown by the comments on the station’s website, many of which essentially repeated the conclusion supported by the Centers for Disease Control and the National Institutes of Health, among other authorities: Immunizations protect children from a litany of lethal diseases—from polio to diphtheria to tetanus—and produce only vanishingly small numbers of adverse outcomes that almost never include death. The Las Vegas CityLife alternative weekly (“Infectious Disease Promoted at Channel 8”) and joined in criticizing the KLAS report, as did Bryan Vartabedian, an assistant professor of pediatrics at Baylor College of Medicine who, when his attempt to comment on the KLAS site was not immediately posted, took to his own blog. Vehemently.

Pediatricians—those best positioned to advocate for children—understand the basis for our current immunization schedule and use it in their practices. These pediatricians understand that the `alternative vaccine schedule’ has never been endorsed, approved, or recognized by any body of physicians. And to suggest that your story offers a `debate between doctors’ should be seen as an embarrassment for any news organization.

Your piece misrepresents and sets back two generations of work by tireless child health advocates who have worked to eradicate deadly childhood disease. Diane Tuazon, as well as the producers who left her unsupervised, should be ashamed of themselves for fueling the fires of vaccine hesitancy and putting those unable to advocate for themselves at further risk.

Tuazon did not answer my repeated email interview requests. KLAS News Director Ron Comings told me the idea for the piece came from a producer who had recently had a baby and been told that “parents should ask questions” about vaccinations. To some extent he defended Tuazon’s report, suggesting that it was proper to include the holistic point of view in it. He also noted that the KLAS report never “at any point” questioned whether children should be immunized, and that the station had produced many other news items on the need for school-bound children to get vaccinated.

Still, Comings acknowledged that, with the benefit of hindsight, he can see that the station should have given the story more air time and included “a lot more” information from medical authorities who support immunization. “We frankly didn’t give the (vaccination) situation enough time,” Comings said.

The false balancing act of he-said/she-said journalism is a continuing plague on American journalism. Giving equal time to opposed points of view is not a journalistic good when the result is a fundamentally misleading representation of reality. In this case, presenting the vague comments of a “holistic” practitioner as equivalent, somehow, to the mountain of authoritative scientific evidence showing childhood vaccination to be safe and effective is not just journalistically incompetent—it is a danger to kids who won’t get vaccinated because their parents paid attention to the holistic hokum served up on KLAS, and to future generations that could be threatened by a resurgence of deadly diseases that are now, thanks to a broad-based program of immunization, extremely rare.

What now? Well, it would be nice if KLAS offered a prominent apology and a lengthy, fully researched special report on the value to society of childhood immunization. But misinformation, once out there, is—as fellow United States Project writer Brendan Nyhan has explained—extremely difficult to counteract with facts alone. KLAS would do well to review Nyhan’s tips for journalists for covering false or unsupported claims—including, tip one: get the story right the first time.

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John Mecklin is the California and Nevada correspondent for the United States Project, CJR's politics and policy desk. He is the deputy editor of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Follow him on Twitter @meckdevil. Tags: , , , , ,