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Escalating from mistake to blunder

Last week a reporter for KLAS News in Las Vegas reported, “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.”

She was attributing to physicians a debate that is not happening. Doctors are debating no such thing. Rather, a group of celebrities who have not done their homework have stirred up some parents by claiming that vaccinations, and specifically the vaccine ingredient thimerosal, cause autism.

There is no evidence of this claim. In 2004 the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C., reported completion of its eighth report on vaccine safety in the latest effort to reassure the celebs and their followers. That report followed the review of 200 scientific studies. The conclusion: no link between autism and vaccines or thimerosal found. The institute, sounding kind of impatient, issued a statement saying it would no longer spend precious research dollars on the same old fakelore.

Unfortunately, the institute’s job was not finished. Soon another celebrity, Robert Kennedy Jr., got involved in the issue, publishing articles in Rolling Stone and Salon claiming a governmental cover-up on vaccines. The pieces were written so sloppily that both Salon and the Stone soon deleted the article from their websites, Salon with a statement of retraction, Rolling Stone quietly. The Salon statement read, “In the days after running ‘Deadly Immunity,’ we amended the story with five corrections … that went far in undermining Kennedy’s exposé. ... We’ve grown to believe the best reader service is to delete the piece entirely.”

In 2011 the Institute of Medicine had to issue a ninth confirmation of vaccine safety. (By the way, thimerosal was eliminated from most vaccines in the 20th century.)

None of this is a secret. One Internet search would have confirmed to any reporter that there is no medical debate about the safety of vaccinations.

CityLife in Las Vegas quickly corrected the KLAS report, calling it “a video piece stunning for its complete lack of scientific accuracy and objectivity.” That was a service in helping prevent parents from making decisions based on the KLAS report. Everything might have rested there, but the way KLAS behaved caused the controversy to spread from local to national news forums.

KLAS reporter Diane Tuazon, who had not interviewed a single medical doctor who opposed vaccines, refused to be interviewed.

The television station received viewer comments on its website objecting to the report. It deleted the comments.

One of the commenters, pediatrician Bryan Vartabedian of Baylor University, had his own blog and took to it to report KLAS’s suppression of his comments. Dr. Vartabedian also called the KLAS report “worth a look only as a means of showcasing how biased, poorly researched reporting can potentially influence the thinking of anxious parents.”

KLAS acting like it had something to hide soon sent the story into other circles. The Columbia Journalism Review, a publication that has scrutinized journalism practices and ethics for more than half a century, called the KLAS report “an unfortunate and disheartening display of false balance and failed reporting.”

Forbes magazine ran a column describing the KLAS deletion of comments and said pediatricians must frequently battle “misinformation fanned by reporting that appears to be driven by ratings rather than service to the community they serve.”

There’s no evidence that ratings were a factor in the KLAS case — the controversy only undermined the station’s credibility, which hardly helps ratings. Rather, the station tried to avoid embarrassment instead of dealing directly with the problem and turned a small dispute into a larger controversy.

Dennis Myers is a veteran and Nevada journalist.