False Balance or, as Original as My Cat.

Today has been a frustrating day. A day of same old, same old. A day of people repeating the same things they have gotten wrong in the past. A day that showed some people are incapable of stepping outside the safety of  their own comfortably held ideas and learning from past mistakes. A day where much of the media showed themselves as incapable of having original ideas or a social conscience.

What has caused my displeasure?

The tired old method of including an anti-vaxer in any immunisation news story.

The National Health Performance Authority’s report on childhood immunisation coverage was released today, which caused a flurry of media reports as one would expect.

It should have been simple. For some it was. The Age got it right with a story that simply stated the facts. The Byron Bay based Echo got it right too, with commendations for communities with high immunisation rates, and a dire warning from Dr Steve Hambleton president of the AMA, for those below the safe levels for community immunity.

The Maitland Mercury did a great piece too, reporting that the area has one of Australia’s top immunisation rates with 95.5 per cent of children ­vaccinated across the city and only 46 children not fully immunised.

Studio 10 outdid everyone with four minutes of strong, no nonsense commentary on the issue. Take a bow, Studio 10.

The Sydney Morning Herald, gave a non-vaccinating mother free rein to rattle off a bunch of anti-vaccine misconceptions in what could only be described as an exercise in normalising stupidity.  They must have copped some heat for it because later in the day these two sentences were added to the story:

According to the the federal Health Department’s “Myths and concerns about vaccination” vaccines do not weaken the immune system, but strengthen it by giving it the power to fight more diseases.

The World Health Organization has studied the concept of “immune overload” from multiple vaccines and found there is no evidence it is a real phenomenon.

Now that isn’t an exhaustive list, just the ones that came to my notice throughout the day. Then there was the T.V coverage, with journalists looking for participants from the early morning as indicated by this tweet at around 10am by Dr Dave Hawkes:

“Just contacted to be on TV tonight about vax rates in Melb. Said no bc I will not appear alongside antivaxers to give them credibility.”

Well done Dr Hawkes. It’s great to see some people understand the issues that qualified experts appearing in stories with anti-vax activists raise.

And it went on. Radio and T.V, falling over themselves to create false balance stories about immunisation including experts, and unqualified folks who find their ‘reckons’ in the google machine. The only one I actually got to watch was the channel 7 news at 6pm which included anti-vaccine mother and son activist team Wendy and Kenny Lydall, and a representative from the National Center for Immunisation Research and Surveillance. It went something like this;

(Obviously I am paraphrasing.)

Kenny: “I had chickenpox and measles, and that was fine. I’ve traveled in Africa and I didn’t catch anything.”

Cut to Wendy in her garden… Something about she didn’t vaccinate Kenny ‘cos she had severe reactions to vaccines herself.

Cut to representative from the National Center for Immunisation Research and Surveillance saying: “Children who aren’t immunised are at risk of catching some very nasty diseases.”


That went well, didn’t it?

Then over on channel 9 an anti-vaccine chiropractor appeared in a story. I know this type and they have no business speaking their special brand of nonsense in an immunisation news story.

To the elements of the media, and the experts who insist on participating in this kind of false balance: YOU ARE NOT HELPING!

Media, just stick to the facts. Don’t try to manufacture a story, if you must ‘add something’ to your report, why not speak to a parent who thinks vaccinating is an important personal and community issue? A parent who lost their child to a vaccine preventable disease? Or a parent living in fear because their community has such a low immunisation rate diseases are always present? A person living with the long term effects of  having contracted a vaccine preventable disease?  Or one of many community groups working to raise awareness of the importance of immunisation and the dangers of vaccine preventable diseases? You can add some interest to your story without giving a platform to dangerous, misinformed fools.

Professionals and experts, I’m going to give you a step by step way to deal with this issue.

1. Media make contact about a story, you ask “What is the angle of the story and will you be including an anti-vaccine advocate, or non-vaccinating parent?

2. If the media outlet tells you there will be none of the above, congratulate them and go ahead.

3. If the media outlet says there will be an anti-vaccine advocate, or non-vaccinating parent, simply say no. Explain to them what false balance is, how you appearing with such people adds legitimacy that they and their arguments are not entitled to, and that giving the ‘other side’ airtime is actually harmful to the community.

What is the worst thing that could happen? The media outlet gets someone else. Well, at least it isn’t you lowering yourself to appear in such nonsense. Or, they might go ahead with the anti-vaxxer alone. Knowing most of Australia’s anti-vaxxers, that probably isn’t a bad thing. They are pretty good at making themselves seem a bit unbalanced. At least you can hold your head high because you are not enabling false balance on such an important issue.

If you all do it, you can create change. People already are, why don’t you step up and be part of educating the media and stamping out this nonsense practice?

The false balance story is as original as the story my cat tells me every day when I come home from work: She is starving, and hasn’t been fed for a week. She has been telling me that for 15 years. Same old, same old. Surely the media and those who play a part in this circus are more original than my cat! Or are they?



Two other bloggers had something to say about this as well. You can find those blogs here and here.

Edited to add: To the anti-vaxxers who have been commenting, thanks for stopping by. This post is about false balance,  if you feel you have something worthy to add to the issue of immunisation, I suggest you do it where the real discussion on that takes place: in the scientific peer review process. Get yourselves an education, do original research to actually test your claims and submit them to the peer review process. Don’t come here trying to have an argument armed with personal beliefs and tid-bits you found on google. I will not waste my time, or that of my readers by passing your nonsense through moderation. The same goes for the howls of “censorship” that will result from this statement.

Now, I have to go to work. My cat needs more food.


18 thoughts on “False Balance or, as Original as My Cat.

  1. Whenever I am forced to think of these fools, I am reminded of an article on (I think) 60 minutes years ago about a small baby who was too ill to be immunised and so, like many critically ill in the community, was relying on everyone else keeping their immunisations up to date (herd immunity). Unfortunately this baby contracted whooping cough from unvaccinated, healthy children and at the end of the article it was reported the baby had died. It still brings a tear to my eye to think of that poor, tiny child taken before her time due to insane, uneducated charlatans.

    On a similar note, I was performing some personal research into autism a while ago. I stumbled upon the MMR rubbish which led me, more disturbingly, to a group in USA that recommend bleach enemas for these poor young children to ‘cure’ their autism!

    The absolute, dangerous disregard for reason is astounding.

  2. I don’t know much about this anti-vac movement so I’m not going to comment. But I wanted to say what a beautiful cat! I love cats 🙂

  3. Pingback: Andi Lew. Just a mum? On the media interviewing anti-vaccinationists. | reasonablehank

  4. Rosalie, I wrote to the SMH yesterday when I saw that story. I said, if they want to give a true “balance”, they should have interviewed eight or nine families with vaccinated kids for every family with unvaccinated kids that they interviewed (since the vaccination rate in Vaucluse is 85%). I didn’t even bother arguing about the so-called points the mother made in the interview, but my science-student son read it and said, “She believes vaccination works, because she says she’s relying on herd immunity to protect her kids, but she won’t do it herself? That is a special kind of stupid.”

    • You son is more logical than too many parents. My grand children are not vaccinated and nothing I say to my daughter can convince her of the unreasonableness of her position. The poor children are constantly sick with everything from flu and ear infections to stomach bugs, I believe because they are fighting off preventable diseases. I remember by dad’s cousin who had polio as a kid and wore braces for life. Each time they run a fever I worry since doctors are no longer even trained to look for what is preventable. Thank you for continuing to fight ignorance and self-deceit.

    • Oh, trust Today Tonight to provide the ‘ole .False Balance…

      I agree with Rosalie regarding the fact that it would be better to just leave a segment CHOCK FULL of anti-vaxxers, rather than pandering to them and giving them some semblance of validity by placing “Ms. Unbalanced & Child(ren)” of (say) Vaucluse opposite an Epidemiologist who actually knows what they are talking about.

      It’s so dangerous – especially if one considers the Influenza outbreak Australia faces this season.

  5. Good piece Rosalie. I never bother writing to the Herald anymore, there is zero feedback from them. I posted their crap article for 550 people on my facebook though, with a screen shot of the first version, and the clearly edited second version. The woman they interviewed is, as someone observed above, a special kind of stupid. The SMH is just as bad for giving her oxygen.

  6. Well said Rosalie. I totally endorse the censorship of stupid and dangerously wrong information. A pity the SMH doesn’t follow suit.

  7. The sad thing is that media outlets, of various forms, are lazy and know their story is more likely to get to air if they can manufacture controversy. Furthermore they appear to be unable to discern fact from opinion.

    In the examples above, opinions could have been sought from vaxing and non-vaxing parents to discuss their opinions and fears. Then they could have used qualified experts to reassure or rebut opinions with no supporting facts.

    This is the format they often use for financial institution stories or retail rights stories. Yet for this mis-represented non-sense they give credibility to “experts” with no qualifications in the area debated.

    If you are interested, there is a recent interesting paper out of Yale looking at the success of the story telling style of anti-vaxers compared to factual, research based message from medical fraternity. Happy to send it to you if interested.

  8. Pingback: » How to avoid false balance and why you should

  9. True Balance is about accuracy which is really about honesty. Here is an example in real time. It is Easter Monday. A patient in trouble needs help. Brain Tumour. She has recently had dendritic cell therapy. an MRI here in Australia shows swelling. Is it tumour lysis (tumour breaking down or necreosing aftet he treatments) or is it new activity – growth of new tumour cells?

    To get an accurate picture we advise a PET CT scan because they give the most accurate picture. IE the most honest diagnosis can come from this.
    If it is tumour lysis then maybe no need to worry. If tumour growth then some treatment plan must be devised.

    New research shows just how remarkable PET CTs are despite some risk from radiation.
    Journalists similarly must strive for accuracy. As always it is the consumer who must demand such.
    Humans can’t survive without a considerable base of honesty. I believe!
    Happy Easter all.

  10. Pingback: Media’s False balance trap | Steaming Pile of Consciousness

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