Dr. Paul Offit: ‘Journalism Jail’ For Faulty Medical Reporting – Forbes

DENVER, CO – Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia chief of infectious diseases, pediatrician, vaccine developer and author, Dr. Paul W. Offit, called on broadcast and print reporters to avoid the “he-said, she-said reporting” that perpetuates false controversies in science and medicine.

Offit’s comments came today in his keynote address at Health Journalism 2014, this year’s annual meeting of the Association for Health Care Journalists.

In his discussion of some continued–and faulty–reporting on an association between childhood vaccines and the incidence of autism, Offit said, “It’s easy to scare people. It’s harder to un-scare them.” His view is that vaccination rates will only increase because of outbreaks of otherwise preventable diseases such as measles and pertussis (whooping cough).

Who’s an “expert?”

Offit posed the question to journalists of what criteria establishes someone as an expert worthy of serving as a valid source or commenter on issues of health. On one hand, reporters and producers should held accountable for soliciting celebrities lacking qualifications in science and medicine whose unqualified opinions will be broadcast to millions or read by hundreds of thousands.

For example, Offit asked rhetorically why he has had to comment on what people like Donald Trump or Kristin Cavaliari think about autism and vaccines.

H. Fred Clark and Paul Offit, the inventors of RotaTeq, a pentavalent rotavirus vaccine. When researchers announced in 1955 that a nationwide trial showed that the first polio vaccine was safe and effective, inventor Jonas Salk was greeted as a national hero. Today, rotavirus vaccine inventor Paul Offit (right, with co-inventor H. Fred Clark) routinely endures vitriolic attacks on his credibility, along with death threats, for defending the safety of vaccines. (Photo and caption credit: The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, via Creative Commons 2.5 license).

H. Fred Clark and Paul Offit, the inventors of RotaTeq, a pentavalent rotavirus vaccine. When researchers announced in 1955 that a nationwide trial showed that the first polio vaccine was safe and effective, inventor Jonas Salk was greeted as a national hero. Today, rotavirus vaccine inventor Paul Offit (right, with co-inventor H. Fred Clark) routinely endures vitriolic attacks on his credibility, along with death threats, for defending the safety of vaccines. (Photo and caption credit: The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, via Creative Commons 2.5 license).

But he notes that his authority as a highly-trained and experienced professional should not be the only consideration.

“They don’t know the data,” said Offit. “What I say, what others say doesn’t matter. Where is the data?”

Offit added that he’s troubled by so-called journalistic “balance” when the contentions of only one side is supported by science. He called instead for “perspective” in reporting.

For example, he fully acknowledges that vaccines given to tens of millions of people do indeed cause side effects, and even fatalities, but that these events are extremely rare. But Offit noted that these side effects have absolutely nothing to do with causes invoked by many antivaccination activists.

Offit’s advice to journalists who have deadline pressures that preclude them from digging deeply into the medical literature is not to do the story at all.

Penalty box for poor health care reporting

In the Q&A that followed the talk, managing editor of The Daily Briefing and Forbes contributor, Dan Diamond, asked Offit if journalists write stories about “debate” on vaccines– and people die from not getting vaccinated–are we party to murder.

Offit responded with the idea that we should have “journalism jail” for such individuals.

Although that kicker brought some laughter among the audience, Offit later added more solemnly, “You work in a hospital and you watch children die from preventable disease–it makes you passionate.”

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