As anyone who writes for a living knows, one of the most important decisions a writer makes is one a reader never sees: the decision to do one story rather than another--or to do no story at all. Critics who like to deconstruct articles to show a writer's bias might not realize that such biases are often more clearly revealed in story choices than in anything a writer writes. A decision, for example, to do a perfectly balanced, objective story on the hazards of nuclear power in the wake of Fukushima, will send a message that nuclear power is dangerous. Or a writer could decide not to do a story--a writer who, perhaps, thinks a detailed examination of Fukushima would unfairly tar nuclear energy, no matter how the writer tried to balance the story.
In the same way, we could imagine the decision a writer might make about a doctor who has been accused of medical ethics violations and scientific impropriety, who has lost his job and his medical license, who has fled his country and been accused of setting medical research back 10 years--and of endangering children. One might decide not to write a story about such a person, especially if that person is widely known and the story has been told dozens or hundreds of times before.
Or one might decide to write the story. Such a story--if done fairly--would balance some of the horrors, such as the time "he lined up kids to give blood samples at the birthday party of one of his children" because "he needed a control group of children..." It might also, for balance, paint a sympathetic portrait of a man who, despite adversity, clings to his beliefs, who has "a mild professorial air," and who, "broad-shouldered and fair at 54, he still has the presence of the person he once was: a conventional winner, the captain of his medical school’s rugby team, the head boy at the private school he attended in England." A man who "has become one of the most reviled doctors of his generation" but--but!--whose followers "applauded wildly" when he took the stage recently, and who say, “We stand by you!” and “Thank you for the many sacrifices you have made for the cause!” A man who "has depended on his followers for financing and for the emotional scaffolding that allows him to believe himself a truth-teller when the majority of his peers consider him a menace to medicine."
This is the story Susan Dominus wrote in The New York Times Magazine yesterday. The story is about Andrew Wakefield, the British doctor whose report in The Lancet in 1998 was largely responsible for fueling the anti-vaccine furor that has led countless parents around the world to refuse to vaccinate their children, out of concern that vaccines might cause autism. The quotes are from her story, which, in my view, goes a long way toward restoring Wakefield's image as a kindly, misunderstood doctor who simply wants to protect children. Despite the balance, despite the recitation of Wakefield's sins, Dominus has written a story that will persuade many readers that maybe Wakefield is not such a bad guy at all, even if, as she writes, among many other things, that he failed "to disclose financing from lawyers who were mounting a case against vaccine manufacturers."
As any reporter should know, a "study" of a few children proves nothing, and a study of a handful of children that has found no confirmation and has indeed been roundly and extensively rebutted might not deserve yet another hearing for its author in the press.
Dominus needs no instruction from me about fairness and objectivity, but she must know that her story is far from objective. We're too sophisticated here to blame Dominus for the headline, but the editors call Wakefield "an autism guru." That's where a writer might stand up and protest, and maybe Dominus did so, and lost.
Every strand of evidence concerning Wakefield and his "study" suggests that it proved nothing and succeeded only as a touchstone for agonized parents of children with autism, desperate for anything that might help their children, or, at the very least, make of their suffering something that would help other children.
That is not the message that Dominus conveys. The Wakefield story has been told over and over again. The critics and Wakefield's supporters have debated the issue for more than a decade--every side of this story has been minutely examined. Most recently the British medical journal BMJ did an investigation and concluded, as it said in a headline, that "Wakefield's article linking MMR vaccine and autism was fraudulent."
So why would the Times do this story now?
Here's why not to do it: I believe that this story will prompt more parents to refuse to vaccinate their children. Some of those children will suffer or die from illnesses that the vaccines would have prevented.
Stories have consequences, and it's often difficult to predict what those might be. I could be wrong about this. But I would have stayed far, far away from this story.
- Paul Raeburn