Why Did Katie Couric Invite Vaccine Deniers On Her Talk Show?


Credit: Huffington Post

Katie Couric may be on her way to Yahoo from ABC News, but as Amanda Marcotte reports, she doesn’t exactly appear to be making a strong journalistic case for the continuation of her talk show by running a segment weighted heavily in the direction of vaccine denialists. Amanda writes:

On the anti-vax side: Couric’s guests included a mother whose daughter died of undetermined causes 18 days after getting the vaccination; another mother and her daughter, who came down with a hodge-podge of symptoms that sound an awful lot like depression a few days after the vaccine; Dr. Diane Harper, a skeptic of the CDC’s push to vaccinate all girls, and who is careful to avoid obvious untruths but has been criticized for her involvement in the anti-vaccination movement. On the pro-vaccination side, Couric only hosted one guest, Dr. Mallika Marshall, a ratio that wildly underplays how dominant the pro-vaccination opinion is in the medical profession. Marshall was only given a few minutes to state that vaccines are safe and that the side effects mentioned by other guests were probably unrelated to the vaccine. Unfortunately, Couric and her producers allowed these facts to be totally overshadowed by the heart-rending tales told by the two mothers.

One of the most important parts of reporting is deciding what is a story and what isn’t, discerning where a debate is genuinely ongoing and where an issue has been settled, and then, if a journalist decides to go ahead with a story, providing a balance between emotion and facts that she or he is confident will leave a viewer or reader with the conclusion they hope to convey. And while there are many, many stories and issues where news outlets are guilty of allowing both sides to speak without evaluating their claims, or in presenting a conflict where one doesn’t exactly exist, the persistence of this practice when it comes to vaccination is extraordinarily puzzling. And given the damage done by acting if there’s a real and legitimate debate over the safety of vaccinations, it’s an astonishingly troubling practice.

So why do media outlets and journalists like Couric continue to give space to vaccine skeptics? The most prominent paper that suggested a link between the combined measles, mumps and rubella vaccine and autism, which was published by the Lancet in 1998, was retracted almost four years ago. Andrew Wakefield, the doctor who carried out the study described in the paper, had his medical license revoked by Britain’s General Medical Council. His research has been repudiated by Autism Speaks, one of the largest advocacy groups for people with autism and their families. The most prominent proponents of the idea that vaccines have various detrimental side effects are political commentators like the conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, celebrity parents like Jenny McCarthy, and various New Age practitioners. There are not particularly powerful financial interests on the side of those who oppose vaccination, or who promulgate junk science about their effects.

It wouldn’t be admirable if Couric or The View, which added McCarthy as a co-host earlier this year, simply because large organizations advocate against vaccination, or because there’s a lot of money to be made in advertising from anti-vaccine interests. But at least those would be reasons. The deference to this fringe and dangerous theory in the absence of any strong interest–distasteful or not–in giving it attention is a baffling abdication of responsibility and journalistic discretion.

So what is it? Do Couric and others simply recognize that you can make a lot of money by stoking parental fears about the health and safety of their children? Is it our tendency to treat any tragic event, no matter how poorly it’s rooted in science or public affairs, as if it’s newsworthy and revealing? Is it an opportunity to demonstrate to an audience that you aren’t overly in thrall to doctors and scientists? Maybe there are other programming rationales. But it’s long past time when networks and reporters should have to explain publicly why they’re giving time and platforms to a discredited theory that has so damaged our herd immunity that a disease like whooping cough, once thought to be banished from the developing world, is back. And saying you’re just reporting on an ongoing debate can no longer be an acceptable answer.