Actually it’s about ethics in vaccine journalism – my letter to The Star’s public editor about the paper’s Gardasil reporting

 

In my last post I gave a brief overview of the controversy The Toronto Star created with its publication of an article about the HPV vaccine, Gardasil. Since then, there have been some interesting additional items published which are well worth your time:

I have contacted Kathy English, The Star‘s public editor, to express my concerns about the paper’s Gardasil reporting. According to her Twitter stream, she is planning to address the issue in a column on Saturday:

I thought people might find it interesting to see what I’ve written to her about. I also encourage everyone who has concerns about The Star‘s reporting of this story to email her at publiced@thestar.ca

Dear Ms. English,

I hope you are feeling better. I gather from your Twitter stream that you will be addressing the issues raised by The Toronto Star‘s recent article on the HPV vaccine, Gardasil. I will leave the scientific and other concerns expressed by doctors and pharmacists to people more qualified to make them – my specific complaints are in relation to ethics and responsibility – and are outlined below.

As a member of the committee that updated The Star‘s statement of principles in 2011, you are more than familiar with their contents I am sure. I am reproducing some quotes from them here and in my view The Star‘s Gardasil story clearly violated them.

With this right [freedom of expression] comes a responsibility for the media to be accurate, fair, honest and transparent. In its landmark 2009 decision on responsible communication in the public interest, Canada’s highest court asserts this principle: “Freedom does not negate responsibility. It is vital that the media act responsibly in reporting facts on matters of public concern, holding themselves to the highest journalistic standards.”

Good faith with the reader is the foundation of ethical and excellent journalism. That good faith rests primarily on the reader’s confidence that what we print is true. Every effort must be made to ensure that everything published in the Star is accurate, presented in context, and that all sides are presented fairly.

Journalistic integrity demands that significant errors of fact, as well as errors of omission, should be corrected promptly and as prominently and transparently as warranted.

I am going to take you, The Star‘s editor in chief, Michael Cooke and Heather Mallick, at your word that there was no intention for the article in question to be either pro or anti-vaccination, that the story was not about vaccine safety (because Gardasil is safe and effective) but about access to information and transparency. Michael Cooke stated when the article was published that the story was about “[giving] a voice to mothers and daughters who have not had one.”

Well, I’m a mother and a daughter – and this is me giving myself a voice.

The Star‘s coverage of Rob Ford and Jian Ghomeshi showed how powerful, hard-hitting and effective investigative journalism can be. It is therefore extremely disappointing to see The Star deploy the kind of tactics Rob Ford used when faced with criticism, but more on that below.

Here is a list of my specific complaints:

The silence has been deafening

The only public feedback from The Star to date, in response to an overwhelming amount of valid concern about this story, has been Heather Mallick’s column in defence of the article as written. It is simply inappropriate for Canada’s largest newspaper to light a touch paper such as this one and then just retire. It is also highly irresponsible when the issue relates to public health – HPV vaccine uptake in Ontario is already lagging and this story will only make that worse.

The article did not meet your ethical guidelines

Accuracy

The headline of the story, “Wonder drug has a darkside” was appallingly inaccurate given that all the studies to date (and your own paper’s staff) state that Gardasil  is both effective and safe.

The story inaccurately portrayed raw data, collated in order to monitor vaccine safety, as evidence of Gardasil’s side effects. This raw data was neither accurately presented nor placed in the appropriate context.

Fairness

Exploiting the grief of a mother and the suffering of young women in order to sell newspapers is, in my view, neither ethical nor fair. And including only dispassionate, sterile, impersonal statements from public health agencies and Merck, is simply not “presenting all sides fairly”, especially when stacked against passionate, emotional stories from women who (everyone acknowledges) have suffered severe health issues.

Honesty

As previously stated, The Star presented raw data from places like the VAERS database as evidence of vaccine “side effects”. This wasn’t just inaccurate though, it was also dishonest, because the article omitted peer-reviewed data from numerous international studies (not funded by the pharmaceutical industry) and involving millions of women, that demonstrate how safe the HPV vaccine is.

I hate to use the word, but The Star has been extremely disingenuous in its reporting on this issue. If the story was about transparency and not drug safety, why did your Editor in Chief tweet these comments?

What controversy? Over a lack of transparency? Really?

So the story is about drug safety? It seems like The Star wants to have it’s cake (we’re responsible!) and eat it too (but sensationalist stories with an anti-vax angle really sell!).

Transparent

At no point in the story was it disclosed that Dr. Diane Harper has worked for a Merck competitor, on a different HPV vaccine.

One of the main anecdotes presented in the piece is Kaitlyn Armstrong’s story. Your article did not disclose that Kaitlyn’s mother is an anti-vaxxer whose daughter was first “diagnosed” by a naturopath-chiropractor as having a vaccine injury caused by Gardasil and then “treated” with chelation therapy. Chelation is a potentially dangerous procedure meant to only be used in the case of severe heavy metal poisoning. It has been roundly discredited and criticised as a “treatment” for autism.

Judging from her tweets, Kaitlyn’s mother also seems to be a big Jenny McCarthy fan:

Edited Screen Shot Jenny Mc tweet

Kaitlyn’s mother is entitled to her views but when her daughter is used as the main anecdotal evidence for a vaccine’s side effects, the fact she’s a known anti-vaxx campaigner should have been disclosed.

Intentions are not the only yardstick you should be using to evaluate reporting

Julia Belluz states you told her via email, “The story was not intended to be either anti-vaccine nor pro-vaccine.”

Whatever The Star‘s intentions were, this article has breathed life into the anti-vaccination movement at a time when, due to recent measles outbreaks, it was on the defensive. People are sharing the article on twitter using the “CDC Whistleblower” hashtag. Alex Jones (America’s leading conspiracy theorist!) re-published it on his InfoWars site. Andrew Wakefield (former doctor, continuing fraud) is tweeting the article:

Wakefield Tweet

When these are the people who approve of your article, you are not reporting responsibly on matters of public concern.

Don’t use Rob Ford as your role model

When Toronto’s former mayor faced questions regarding his conduct and fitness to serve as our city’s chief magistrate he used a variety of avoidance tactics which were often roundly (and rightly) criticised by columnists in The Star. And yet the paper is now employing these very same tactics.

  • Ford ignored reporters’ questions. Other than Heather Mallick’s column, The Star has been silent and Mallick seems to be blocking everyone on Twitter.
  • Ford insulted and denigrated his critics. Heather Mallick attempted to do this by snarking at Dr. Jen Gunter. Dr. Gunter is an eminently qualified and respected authority on these issues but Mallick dismissed her as “a rural doctor” and “this Jen Gunter person”. Michael Cooke, in his email to Julia Belluz, “pointed to a “very pro-Gardasil story” I wrote for Vox recently…and [said] that I should “stop gargling our bathwater and take the energy to run yourself your own, fresh tub.” I look at the “Courtesy and the Public” section of The Star‘s Statement of Principles and wonder why this is all perfectly acceptable.
  • Ford parsed phrases in order to dodge responsibility. Remember reporters “not asking the right questions” when it came to whether he had tried crack cocaine? So far, your paper has relied on sterile statements buried under the fold as evidence of “balance” in your Gardasil article when, as I noted above, these are wholly insufficient to “balance” the cumulative impact of the headline, the pictures, the video (especially the dramatic, emotional background music) and the genuine suffering of the women interviewed.
  • Ford repeatedly refused to accept responsibility for his actions. I truly hope The Star will not continue to do the same. Please, please do not hide behind “intentions”.

My hope is that you will acknowledge, not only that the original article was irresponsible and did not meet the standards outlined in The Star‘s statement of principles, but that defensiveness, silence and insults are not the appropriate way to respond to valid, constructive criticism.

Best wishes,

Deanne Shoyer

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6 Responses to Actually it’s about ethics in vaccine journalism – my letter to The Star’s public editor about the paper’s Gardasil reporting

  1. Victoria February 11, 2015 at 6:57 pm #

    This is inspiring. Thank you for bringing a thoughtful, measured approach in your response to a horrendous, damaging piece of “journalism”. I couldn’t have done that ;). Your response was flawless in my mind.

    • OMum22 February 11, 2015 at 7:06 pm #

      Thank you Victoria – your comments are always so kind!

  2. SkepticalRaptor February 11, 2015 at 7:30 pm #

    I think that false balance and manufactroversies are considered journalism standards by the Star.

    Let’s remember, if we were to get every expert (I mean someone with backgrounds in immunology, virology, public health, oncology, epidemiology, sexual health, etc) who has either published about Gardasil (or any HPV vaccine) or accepts the scientific consensus on Gardasil in the article, you know a few hundred thousand of them, versus the unethical journalistic journey into post hoc fallacies, 99% of the verbiage would be “Gardasil is safe and effective.”

    Every single study, of large populations with appropriate controls, has shown that Gardasil is incredibly safe. One recent study just showed that not only is multiple sclerosis (and other demyelinating diseases) unrelated to Gardasil, those neurological diseases happen less in Gardasil-vaccinated girls. (OK, I don’t work for the Star, so I know that the statistics are strong enough to say that Gardasil prevents MS).

    I guess the Star wants men and women to get horrific cancers. Let’s thank them for their stupidity.

  3. Mikeh February 13, 2015 at 6:55 am #

    From an infectious disease researcher in the UK, an excellent article and response, good work.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. The Toronto Star has a Dark Side, Investigation Finds. | Raising Doubts - February 12, 2015

    […] Editors note:  This article is meant to illustrate what is wrong with The Toronto Star’s investigative report on the HPV vaccine Gardasil.  The original article can be read here, as well as some good analysis of it here and here. […]

  2. 7 questions the Toronto Star must answer about their Gardasil story | Dr. Jen Gunter - February 12, 2015

    […] injury is a complex process and there is concern that at least one of the girls featured was diagnosed by a chiropractor. The Star has a duty to inform the public how these cases were identified and what the Star […]

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