united states project

When ‘he said,’ ‘she said’ is dangerous

Media errs in giving "balanced" coverage to McCarthy's discredited views
July 16, 2013

ABC’s announcement yesterday that actress/comedian Jenny McCarthy will become a co-host of The View brought forth a torrent of condemnation from doctors, science journalists, opinion writers, and even entertainment commentators who oppose giving the anti-vaccine activist a high-profile platform to spread misinformation.

Unfortunately, however, the early coverage has generally failed to follow best practices for covering false or unsupported claims, giving greater reach to discredited claims that have potentially dangerous consequences for public health.

One problem was that McCarthy’s hiring was initially categorized as an entertainment story under the journalistic beat system and thus covered by reporters who don’t specialize in science or health. Predictably, some of them resorted to “he said,” “she said” style coverage that failed to make clear just how extreme and scientifically discredited McCarthy’s views are. USA Today TV writer Gary Levin, for instance, described McCarthy’s claim that vaccines cause autism only as “controversial” and portrayed her critics as coming from “pro-immunization advocacy groups,” drawing fire from NYU professor Jay Rosen. Salon entertainment staff reporter Daniel D’Addario likewise stated only that McCarthy’s “strong stance against vaccines…has been a source of controversy in recent years” (though two other Salon writers denounced the hire in opinion pieces). Philadelphia Inquirer entertainment reporter Tirdad Derakhshani explicitly framed the issue in “he said,” “she said” terms, noting only that “Jenny made enemies of doctors when she said vaccination caused her son Evan’s autism.” Worst of all, AP television writer Frazier Moore repeated McCarthy’s nonsense with no qualifier whatsoever, writing that McCarthy “emerged as an activist, campaigning about the dangers of vaccines, which she claims triggered her son’s autism.”

To their credit, however, two entertainment writers stood out for providing fact-based coverage. New York Times television writer Bill Carter stated directly that McCarthy’s claims are based on a “widely disproved theory [that] has led to unnecessary illnesses in children, according to child health experts,” while Los Angeles Times entertainment reporter Meredith Blake immediately described McCarthy’s views as “discredited” in an initial blog post yesterday. In a longer story for print today, Blake reiterated that the theory is “discredited,” pointed out that the original article linking vaccines to autism has been retracted and its lead author stripped of his medical license in the United Kingdom, and quoted numerous critics of the hiring.

One health writer, USA Today‘s Liz Szabo, also covered the controversy in a separate article from Levin, but she drew deserved criticism from Rosen for using a “he said,” “she said” frame. To Szabo’s credit, the article does state that “Two dozen studies have failed to find any link between autism and vaccines” and gives some space to McCarthy’s critics. However, the online headline is agnostic about the merits of the actress’s claims (“McCarthy’s view on vaccines stirs ‘View’ controversy”), the lede refers only to McCarthy’s “claims that vaccines cause autism,” and the article explicitly sets up an opposition between “vaccine skeptics and some parents of autistic children” who “hail McCarthy as a hero” and “public health groups” who “say they fear that McCarthy… will use her new job to spread dangerous misinformation.”

There is no perfect way to cover McCarthy’s hiring, of course, but giving “balanced” coverage to fringe beliefs is the worst approach to covering misinformation. Indeed, CJR’s Curtis Brainard argued that this sort of reporting has helped keep the vaccine/autism myth alive long after the scientific debate has been settled.

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If McCarthy is allowed to discuss health issues on the show when she starts in September, these sorts of problems will only get worse. Bill Nye “the Science Guy” told the Huffington Post that he hopes the show will “promote this conflict, or at least vigorous disagreement, about the role of science in medicine” because he “believe[s] Ms. McCarthy’s views will be discredited.” But the reality is that misinformation is extremely difficult to counter with facts alone. That’s why it was laudable that the Chicago Sun-Times stated that McCarthy would “not be writing about vaccines or giving medical advice” in her advice column for the paper. Will ABC do the same? Or will the network and View co-host Barbara Walters sit by while McCarthy misleads millions of Americans, including many young women, about a medical issue that could cost children their lives?

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Brendan Nyhan is an assistant professor of government at Dartmouth College. He blogs at brendan-nyhan.com and tweets @BrendanNyhan.