Health, Risk and News: the MMR vaccine and the media

Kayo Tomono writes on Tammy Boyce's lecture:

Unlike in many other countries, the MMR vaccination has been a very controversial subject in the UK. Dr Tammy Boyce, a research fellow in Risk, Health and Science Communication, and deputy director of the Risk, Science and Health Group at The Cardiff School of Journalism's media and cultural studies unit, was the Institute's speaker on February 13th.

She had become involved in the subject of the MMR vaccine and the media after reading research which claimed that there was some kind of connection between MMR and autism. Although she was sceptical about that claim ('It does not seem to link', she says), the story had been taken up everywhere. This gap between science and media reports drove her to carry out intensive examinations into media coverage of the MMR vaccine.

She focused mainly on television and newspaper coverage for a seven-month period in 2002, including interviews with journalists and their sources. What she found was a problem of balance; the media had sided against the vaccine by tilting stories and sources. In reality, there was very limited evidence to show that MMR was unsafe. Almost all scientists agreed that MMR was safe.

But still the media tried to create a balance between pro-MMR and anti-MMR. Journalists deliberately selected sources which made for easier story-making and quoted comments made not by scientists and health professionals but by politicians, parents and pressure-groups. This media attitude led their reports to become political stories which were not necessarily fact-based, and gave the misleading impression to the public of an equivalence of evidence.

She pointed out another problem which was that too many journalists wrote articles without having enough knowledge, based on the fact that about 30 journalists in each medium wrote on the subject of MMR. If journalists go to the Internet or to GPs, she said, they can obtain information. There are many ways of obtaining information but journalists took the easier route. Dr Boyce believes that non-specialists try to sensationalise the issue. The impact of sensational media coverage associating MMR with autism was huge, she said. Incidences of MMR in the UK shot up because the vaccine rate dropped, thanks to these stories.

Answering the question, 'What is the right way of reporting?', Dr Boyce said she believed when the media covered scientific issues 'the best story was no story'.