Journalism failure? Autism-vaccine story represents a triumph of journalism.

January 12, 2011

By Kate Johnson

How ironic that people like Neil Cameron blame the vaccine-autism mess on journalism, when it was actually a journalist who first blew the whistle on Andrew Wakefield’s fraudulent study.

At a time when science journalists are struggling to retain their foothold let’s not forget the conclusion of the autism-vaccine debacle.

Medicine is a highly specialized field that calls for specialized journalists who can critically assess and examine scientific studies. Such journalists are a dying breed as media outlets downsize and health sections dwindle. New York Times science reporter Natalie Angier recently said science coverage is “basically going out of business” – which means the public must rely on non-specialized journalists to navigate the medical literature. While they do their best, how can such journalists know the intricacies of a field that science journalists spend an entire career learning?

A year ago I wrote that Dr. Richard Horton, editor of The Lancet described the autism-vaccine mess as a “system failure”. “We failed, I think the media failed, I think government failed, I think the scientific community failed,” he said. Yet, despite this failure, a science journalist succeeded in exposing the flaws which eventually led to the study’s retraction.

As I’ve written for the American Medical Writers Association, journalists who are specifically trained to critique scientific analysis, place it in context, and “translate” it into more digestible forms are an essential link in the chain of communication between the research lab and the public.

Many scientists recognize this fact, and their collaboration with journalists can enlighten the public still further. Indeed, Dr. Amir Raz from Montreal’s Institute for Community and Family Psychiatry and Lady Davis Institute for Medical Research at the Jewish General Hospital has told me science writers are “the mouthpiece of the field”.

Neil Cameron correctly states that “famous, prestigious, refereed and long-established scientific journals” are increasingly publishing questionable studies. All the more reason to protect and support science journalism and the insight it can offer.

I would say that in the end, the autism-vaccine story is a science journalism triumph and should be a wake-up call to journalistic organizations and society in general that science journalism is worth paying for.

Kate Johnson is a freelance medical journalist living in Montreal. She is a member of the Association of Health Care Journalists and the American Medical Writers Association.

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