Another embarrassment

Nevada journalism came in for some unwanted attention recently.

KLAS News in Las Vegas ran a back-to-school report on immunizations that contained language like this: “Vaccines have been debated for years in the medical field. While some doctors believe they are vital to a child’s health, other doctors believe in a more natural approach to disease prevention.”

This is like saying that alchemy or the roundness of the Earth is still being debated. There is no medical debate on vaccinations, nor was KLAS able to come up with any physicians on the anti-vaccine side, except a chiropractor.

Unless the reporter included distinguished medical figures like Jenny McCarthy and Robert Kennedy Jr., there is no debate to cover here. Huge amounts of money have been expended by medical researchers re-studying the claims of professional nuisances like Jim Carrey whose big names command publicity but whose knowledge falls short of any intellectually honest standard.

Our colleagues at City Life in Las Vegas moved quickly to try to stop the damage from this report, which could encourage parents not to immunize their children. They posted a piece reading in part, “In a video piece stunning for its complete lack of scientific accuracy and objectivity, the local CBS affiliate rolled up the last century of medical progress and hitched its wagon to the thoroughly discredited anti-vaxxer campaigns Wednesday morning.” The Columbia Journalism Review at Columbia University joined in: “In an unfortunate and disheartening display of false balance and failed reporting [KLAS] ignored reams of science that support the efficacy and safety of immunization in protecting children from serious, often lethal diseases.”

This is not a case of giving both sides a fair hearing. It’s a case of false equivalence. Pitting a serious physician against a fringe figure or a “holistic healer” is irresponsible and unprofessional. Little wonder reporter Diane Tuazon declined to be interviewed, also unprofessional. And when KLAS deleted a reader comment from a pediatrician, it was equally unprofessional—but did reveal that the station prefers an uninformed chiropractor to an informed pediatrician. That deletion then brought the controversy to a wider audience, with a Forbes columnist writing that KLAS is more “driven by ratings rather than service to the community they serve.”

Those who oppose vaccinations have been exposed time and again as peddling dangerous folklore, not science. Giving them a say in this is like doing a report that gives both the pros and cons of bank robbery or cancer. A big name does not an expert make. In area after area, we have seen this failing in modern journalism. “Experts” are trotted out to challenge climate scientists on climate change, for example, but the critics nearly always turn out to be not other climate scientists but purveyors of junk science—television weathercasters, politicians, or one of a half dozen scientists-for-rent who are actually physicists and thus without expertise in the field (many of whom previously challenged the science on secondhand smoke for the tobacco companies).

It is journalism’s job to scrutinize claims, not promote them. And KLAS should try to undo some of the damage it did with a clear admission of error and some reports that correct the original piece.