Vaccines: Stenographer disease hits journalists at Wall Street Journal, CNN

Jeanne Whalen knows how to get to the bottom of a story — until recently she honed her skills getting the scoop on CEOs and politicians alike at The Wall Street Journal’s London and Moscow Bureaus. But now that she’s the Journal’s Deputy Bureau Chief for Health and Science, she sometimes more resembles a stenographer, as seen in her reporting of Another Study Shows No Link Between MMR Vaccine and Autism.

Nowhere in this article did Whalen think to question any of the players in this major study, not the government funders, not the corporate interests, not the scientists. Instead, she might as well have taken dictation, faithfully transcribing the self-serving comments of everyone she interviewed.

What might Whalen’s questioning have inquired into, rather than whether the study had “a large sample size” and benefitted from “well done analyses”? Well, she might have asked the authors about their potential conflict — the study came from The Lewin Group, a consulting firm that lists major vaccine makers among its clients. She might have asked why the study’s publisher, the Journal of the American Medical Association, made an exception to its usual high standards of disclosure by failing to disclose the potential conflict. Rather than stating that “A string of large studies have now debunked the theory that MMR might be linked to autism” and transcribing a scientist’s hope that the study would “contribute to putting to rest the myth that immunizations cause autism,” Whalen might have also asked him about the many top scientists at top research organizations around the world who disagree, and find credible the possibility that vaccines are implicated in the rise of autism.

These questions and others were indeed raised, not by Whalen but by investigative journalist Sharyl Attkisson, winner of numerous Emmy awards, former anchor and host at CBS and PBS, and author of the New York Times bestseller, “Stonewalled. My Fight for Truth Against the Forces of Obstruction, Intimidation, and Harassment in Obama’s Washington.”

Whalen isn’t alone in taking dictation when it comes to vaccines. Her counterparts at CNN, New York Daily News, CTV, The Guardian and numerous other (normally) credible media outlets wrote very similar stories, often with near-identical headlines. This is a public relations agency’s dream; it is not journalism.

Our rating

Jeanne Whalen (@JeanneWhalen) and The Wall Street Journal (@wsj) receive two Band-Aids for failing to act as journalists, and thus doing a disservice to their readers, in covering a major story on one of the most controversial issues of the day.

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Comments

  1. Sadly, vaccine makers have no incentive to change their ways. They make huge profits but are totally protected from lawsuits because Congress granted them immunity in 1986. We the taxpayers are paying for the damages they are causing. Sound familiar? Privatizing profits while socializing risk!! If you want to change this, please sign this petition on Moveon.org.

    http://petitions.moveon.org/sign/repeal-immunity-for-drug

    Kindly pass this on to everyone you know. Together, hopefully, we can make a difference!

    Like

  2. Neither Jeanne Whalen nor any of the other stenographers actually bothered to critically analyze the Jain et al. study. As you said, they just regurgitated the press release accompanying the paper. Whalen says the study had “a large sample size,” but she obviously doesn’t know how large a sample size would have been required to detect an effect of the MMR vaccine on autism, if there was one. In other words, she really doesn’t know if the study was powerful enough to detect an effect, despite its seemingly large sample size and wonderfully done statistics. I ran a post-hoc power analysis on the data (generally frowned upon these days, but revealing nonetheless) at http://clincalc.com/Stats/Power.aspx, and the study had a power of about 40% for the age 5 group, which is only half the 80% power researchers usually want. In other words, this study had a 40% chance of correctly rejecting a false null hypothesis. Assuming that the null hypothesis was that the MMR vaccine doesn’t cause autism, there’s only a 40% chance of rejecting it if it were false–they might as well have saved the taxpayers some money and flipped a coin. There are several other flaws in the study as well, which I’m in the process of writing up. And, of course, Whalen, like all the other stenographers, mistakes statistical outcomes for reality. An important rule in science is, “Absence of statistical significance is not evidence of absence of an effect.” And statistical significance (or lack thereof) is not the same as clinical, real-world significance. Real scientific theories are not “debunked,” either; they are either supported or not by the accumulation of evidence. Debunking is something that is done with myths, ideas, or beliefs, but not theories or hypotheses.

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