ABC-TV’s Media Watch program has described the Australian Vaccination Network (AVN) as “deceptively-named” and an “obsessively anti-vaccination pressure group that’s immunised itself against the effect of scientific evidence”.
In a segment of the program titled “False balance leads to confusion”, which went to air on October 1, host Jonathan Holmes also referred to an AVN claim about medical literature linking vaccination with autism as “pure, unadulterated baloney”. He also said that supposed evidence for a link was “bulldust”.
Not surprisingly, AVN acting president Meryl Dorey was not impressed. In a blog, she called the report “a hatchet job” and “reporting of the lowest standard”.
The segment covered an August 16 report on Wollongong-based WIN-TV News about an outbreak of measles. The WIN program included a comment from a reputable medical source, but the reporter, Michaela Gray, then allowed Dorey to make her claim that “All vaccinations in the medical literature have been linked with the possibility of causing autism, not just the measles/mumps/rubella vaccine.”
Media Watch referred to the news program’s approach as an example of “false balance”, where a reporter or producer simply looks for two sides to a story, regardless of the relative merits of the two positions.
“To put it bluntly, there’s evidence, and there’s bulldust. It’s a journalist’s job to distinguish between them, not to sit on the fence and bleat ‘balance’. Especially when people’s health is at risk.”
Holmes asked “So why on earth … did [WIN-TV] include the AVN’s misleading claims in a news story about a measles outbreak? WIN-TV couldn’t find time to answer that question.” He then quoted Shirley Brown, group business director for WIN-TV, who wrote to a viewer who had complained about the coverage: “The story presented was accurate, fair and balanced and presented the views of the medical practitioners and of the choice groups.”
“Medical practitioners – choice groups,” Holmes said, balancing one hand against the other. “One opinion as valid as the other. It’s a classic example of what many – especially despairing scientists – call ‘false balance’ in the media.”
The concept of being “fair and balanced” is often, of course, loosely applied and in many cases a complete nonsense. TV programs, presumably, would not give equal time to astrologers when reporting on the latest discoveries from Mars, or to Big Foot hunters in a story about wildlife conservation, or to a Young Earth Creationist when seeking comment on dinosaurs.
In commenting on WIN-TV’s “fair balance” excuse, Holmes, in fact, gave even stronger criticism of the AVN’s claims: “[The WIN-TV program] only quoted one [‘free choice’] group, which claims that it’s in favour of the public having a choice. But Meryl Dorey’s deceptively-named Australian Vaccination Network is in fact an obsessively anti-vaccination pressure group that’s immunised itself against the effect of scientific evidence. Dorey’s claim about the medical literature linking vaccination and autism is pure, unadulterated baloney.”
The Media Watch report and transcript can be found here.
It is no doubt likely that Media Watch and the ABC will now be labelled part of the ‘vaccination conspiracy’ and on the payroll of ‘Big Pharma’.