How Media Coverage Contributed to a Measles Outbreak

How Media Coverage Contributed to a Measles Outbreak


In early 2015, the media turned its attention
to a measles outbreak that originated in — of all places — Disneyland. Measles is a wildly contagious disease that
can cause a rash, high fever, and further complications — even death. It can also be prevented with a vaccine. But 45% of people who were infected in the
Disneyland outbreak were unvaccinated — either because they were too young to receive the
vaccine, or because they chose not to get vaccinated, for whatever reason. Over four months, 111 cases of measles were
traced back to the happiest place on earth, affecting people across seven US states, Mexico
and Canada. And this story isn’t some weird fluke. In 2019 alone, over a thousand cases of measles
have been reported in the US, with outbreaks happening from New York City to Washington
state. So, how did we get here? [intro] According to the CDC, measles outbreaks often
have two common factors. Either more people are getting measles abroad
and bringing it back to the US, or measles is spreading in “pockets” of unvaccinated
people in the US. This second factor received a significant
amount of media attention during the Disneyland outbreak. A 2018 study found that news coverage of the
outbreak paid considerable attention to so-called “anti-vaxxers.” Researchers analyzed 331 news stories about
the Disneyland outbreak from December 2014 to April 2015. They found that, among these stories, 13%
of them used, as sources, people who oppose vaccination. Although the study found that the media often
discredited these sources, they were nonetheless used to provide an “opposing view” on
vaccine safety. This is an issue that has often been framed
as having two comparable “sides” — anti-vaccination vs. pro-vaccination. And this is a prime example of false balance,
a type of media bias. It’s the idea that reporters must tell both
sides of a story in order to tell a story well. The thing is, science doesn’t have sides
— it relies on data. But still, journalism has often framed science
stories as having two “sides” in this quest for balance. On the surface, “balanced” reporting can
seem like a good thing. After all, journalists are supposed to present
facts in an accurate, thorough way. But journalists are also supposed to look
at the evidence. So let’s look at the evidence for the debate
surrounding vaccines: A lot of opposition to vaccines can be traced
back to a 1998 study published by Andrew Wakefield. His study claimed there could be a potential
link between the MMR vaccine and autism. This paper was eventually retracted due to
medical misconduct — it was later found that Wakefield also falsified his data and
he ended up losing his medical license. But the damage was done. Fueled largely by media coverage, the paper’s
false findings kicked off a debate over vaccines. This made vaccine opposition appear to be
a bigger problem than it actually was. But the scientific evidence is clear: vaccines
are safe and there isn’t a link between vaccines and autism. So on one “side” we’ve got a small minority
of people who are hesitant of vaccines for a variety of reasons. And on the other side, there’s the scientific
community telling us that vaccines are safe. So if the media focuses on providing /balance/
and treating these two “sides” as equal, then the story isn’t actually accurate. Say a reporter interviews a parent who claims
that their child’s autism was caused by vaccines. If that unsupported statement gets published
without also mentioning that there is no evidence showing that vaccines cause autism — then
the reader isn’t getting the whole story. They are getting a misleading, and factually
incorrect story in the name of “balance.” Here’s another example: say a reporter includes
a claim from a parent about vaccines and autism, and then “balances” it out with a quote
from a doctor saying that vaccines are safe, with scientific evidence to support that claim. If this is done without noting that the doctor’s
sources are factually correct, then it makes it seem like their two positions have equal
weight, when they just don’t. Finally, a lot of reporting on vaccines has
made it seem like anti-vaxxers make up a huge constituency, when in reality, it’s a small
minority of people who think this way. According to a study by the American Academy
of Pediatrics, it’s estimated that only 3% of parents refuse all vaccines for their
children. If a journalist is only reporting on people
who oppose vaccines, that doesn’t accurately portray the problem as it is. False balance is a pretty common problem in
news stories about science. Big stories about science are often associated
with controversy — think evolution, stem cell research, and climate change. When the media try to report on these stories
objectively, the science and the controversy often become intertwined, making readers believe
that scientists are divided on an issue, even when that’s not true. According to Tara Haelle, a health journalist
who specializes in vaccine coverage, false balance used to be a much bigger problem,
especially in media coverage of vaccines. In a blog post on the Association of Health
Care Journalists’ website, Haelle explained that the Disneyland outbreak in 2015 proved
to be a bit of a turning point. After that, Haelle says more coverage started
to acknowledge that vaccines are safe. Now the question for journalists is: what’s
the best way to report on vaccines while acknowledging that there is no scientific debate? Some journalists are trying to shift the conversation
from one of “balance” to one of “responsibility.” Instead of looking at it as a pro/con kind
of thing, some are leaning away from using the term “anti-vaccination,” which can
be polarizing, and instead have begun to use “vaccine hesitancy,” as a way to characterize
this issue as a social phenomenon, rather than a belief system. The World Health Organization defines vaccine
hesitancy as the “delay in acceptance or refusal of vaccines despite availability of
vaccination services.” Still, finding the right words to describe
this problem can be tricky. In an NPR opinion piece on vaccine coverage,
NPR’s domestic health editor, Joe Neel, said that his newsroom is still trying to
“find language that is precise” when it comes to describing people who are opposed
to or unsure of vaccines. He said their newsroom is searching for “the
best and most neutral ways to represent the full spectrum of positions of those who are
questioning vaccines, while reporting on the false aspects of their arguments.” The word “neutral” is key here. Though the science is clear, journalists can’t
make it look like they’re advocating for anything in their stories. The idea here is that the media can recognize
that vaccine hesitancy exists, but rather than seeking out the other side of the story,
journalists are being encouraged to talk to researchers who study vaccine hesitancy so
they can better portray this problem. Still, sometimes journalists need to report
on false statements about vaccines, either because they’re newsworthy or because they’re
necessary to report. For example, let’s say a prominent politician
says that they believe vaccines cause autism. In this case, a journalist could report on
this statement, but they would /also/ need to fully acknowledge that the statement has
no evidence to back it up. So, although vaccine hesitancy is a smaller
issue than media coverage has made it seem, measles outbreaks continue to happen, and
the media will continue to cover these outbreaks. As we’ve seen, the sheer amount of reporting
on vaccine hesitancy in recent years has impacted the debate over vaccines. Though the media has tried to report objectively
on this topic, their search for balance has often had negative effects. Journalists and media organizations are recognizing
that false balance is a problem. What impact that’s going to have on future
coverage of measles outbreaks and vaccinations remains to be seen.

Author:

61 thoughts on “How Media Coverage Contributed to a Measles Outbreak”

  • I love this so far! And I love that Betty Cooper apparently grew up to write health articles for the hashed out observer 😂

  • Christopher Willis says:

    Hey, it's my favorite Hofmeister! The presentation style here reminds me of old youtube, slides and talking! Works great when you want to show lots of data and sources, so I actually prefer it for deep-dive science takes, cheers!

  • Perhaps the solution is charges of criminal negligence for parents of children who could have been vaccinated and who subsequently become ill, and for adults who refuse to be vaccinated and subsequently infect others. If someone dies. The charge would be criminal negligence causing death.

  • As the parent of an Autistic child who is too often accused of causing him to be Autistic by vaccinating him, I love this.

    As a Hard of Hearing viewer, I loved that it was properly captioned right away. No AutoCraptions or having to wait 3 days for someone to think of accessibility! Awesome!

    As a general viewer, I liked this video but would probably have liked it more if there had been a visible person presenting some of the time instead of just a voice. It's possible that my preference for watching a presenter rather than just graphics is because, since I don't hear well, I don't connect well with disembodied voices.

  • At this point there's probably more evidence directly supporting climate change than gravity, just from sheer amount of research. And yet you don't see news networks with gravity deniers on every week even though they technically have more (ahem) ground to stand on.

  • NinjaTurtlesAllTheWayDown says:

    I absolutely love this video and the entire concept behind this channel! The only thing I don't love are the graphics (they kind of distracted me from the topic and felt impersonal) and when the headlines popped onto the screen that I wanted to read I had to pause the video to do that.

  • if you really wanna show the whole story on the trustworthiness of the scientific community, why not do a video on how transgender women were telling the scientific community for probably decades that their hormonal treatments were making their feet grow bigger, and the scientific community didn't believe them based on the "lack of evidence" despite the fact that the scientific community was itself choosing not to engage with or study the phenomenon, and we now know that it can indeed happen, just as it happens with pregnant women, for THE EXACT SAME REASON (hormones).

  • Good topic. Good presentation of all the sides to the issue. The anti-vaxxer idea is a good hook, and then I’m learning about ethics in journalism. Ina good way!

    I agree with others – the transition graphics make a good thumbnail but are distracting. The TED Ed – esque animations (people at the lecterns) were a nice touch

  • Excellent work, Complexly. So happy to see ideas from great people like Blake and Nicole becoming a reality. So lovely to hear Caitlin doing the voice over. 😍

  • This has the potential to be a great series, but I hope you are prepared for the vitriol that will surely come your way. You may even want to turn off comments altogether.

  • I love the video! Even with a topic where I know most of the background, I found it to be well-presented and clear, and I learned a few more tidbits (which is all I ever ask from a video on a subject I am familiar with). I also really appreciate the thorough list of reference links in the description, although I'm not sure why (at least on my desktop view) they all get truncated with ellipses even though the paragraphs at the beginning of the description fill the whole width of the video. (I suspect that this is a YouTube issue, but I mention it in case it isn't.)

    I'd say that this is a little ahead of History Pop in my preferences for the new channels, if only because I feel like this is content that needs to be out there.

    Edit to clarify: I am familiar with both the history of the "anti-vax movement" (which I will now refer to as vaccine heistancy) and the issues around journalism and presenting "balanced" views on fact-based issues. And I learned new things about both subjects. Well done!

  • This is pretty poorly executed compared to other Complexly channels, such as SciShow. Can't put my finger on what the issue is but it feels like one of those channels that rushes out a video on a topic because it's relevant.

  • This is the perfect topic to open this series with. I’d love to see one about how bots and governments use social media campaigns to sway public opinion.

  • yes!!! this is a channel that i want but also one that we NEED. media literacy is so. damn. important. now. i hope you guys pick up this pilot for a whole series!

  • It's awesome that you guys did a video on this. But as a disabled person science definitely takes sides. Just read any study on pretty much any neurodivergency from 15+ years ago (or most modern ones, but they've started cleaning up their act a little bit so it can be a bit harder to spot now). There was even scientific evidence a few decades ago that women couldn't physically run marathons.

  • I like this pilot the best so far. I appreciate the deep dive in the history pop but I can see this channel going further and doing better in the long term. I like explorations of journalistic integrity. Seemed like a contemporary focused version of the old school retro report by the New York times.

  • Personally, I would really like to see the person behind the microphone. While photo-and-text videos are great and I would still watch the channel even if you wouldn't change that, I think seeing them would make it even better.

  • This has a similar problem to History pop but not as severe because of the subject. Still though I feel like I'm watching a slideshow. Love the concept, just giving my feedback.

  • supercrazypurplegurl says:

    The amount of moving graphics makes it hard to focus on the content. But I just closed my eyes and enjoyed the video that way.

  • This is a super important information. We need more analysis of the media like this, so Hashed Out feels like something that needs to exits. But please drop the coloured shapes that move around the edges of the video. They make it harder to concentration on the text and kinda give me a headache to watch.

  • Jamie Oglethorpe says:

    The problem is that once the djinni is out of the bottle, a responsible media cannot push it back in. Anti-vaxing has become entangled with personal choice. I grew up with the mandatory vaccination of all school children, and I think it is a good thing. Some friends are horrified by the idea.

  • I want more videos on False Balance and all of the ways that it is negatively impacting our world. From the descriptions of the three pilot channels, I didn't think this would be my favorite one (I'm a story fan, myself), but I REALLY liked this! Very much looking forward to the next episode.

  • Lisa Eichler-Johnson says:

    Good topic but choppy presentation and disliked approach. It took sort of an easy way out, ‘all vaccines are safe’. All medicines have side effects, there is a vaccine injury board for a reason. This covered in too simplistic of a manner a much more challenging topic. Yes vaccines are an amazing benefit to society but you have to present the whole picture.

  • Coming from vlogbrothers announcement of this pilot series, one comment I have is that I think the story is too long. If there is a fun way of segmenting the video like Ted videos with questions or puzzles, I think this could the series could be more bearable and interesting with more users loosing interest faster. But the content itself it awesome! Good scientific based and always has top integrity by putting facts before entertainment.

  • So far i have Enjoyed all 3 pilots. But this is properly me (and my bf's) favorite. Intresting topic and perspectives. Can't wait for the one about twittter

  • Feedback: It would be nice to have a slightly less American perspective. As an online media, it will have an international viewership. Given the measles issue is also taking place in Europe, it would be nice to have a more international view.

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