Media Response to the Observer and Autism

The Observer’s recent scare story on autism has at least two good points.

  1. They have taken such a beating that it is unlikely that they will publish another PR story for Wakefield for a long time to come.
  2. I have discovered a lot of interesting blogs which support rational discourse and look forward to reading them on a regular basis.

Then there are the bad points. Most of the press ran with the story without questioning its veracity. Very few have picked up on the faults in the Observer story. This is the best I could find when doing a google news search on the terms Observer and Autism.

Press Round Up on the Observer, Wakefield, MMR and Autism

The Observer’s 8 July front page, featuring the claim of a one-in-58 risk of autism from the MMR jab, has prompted its sister paper, ‘The Guardian’, to run a meticulous debunking of the story in its Bad Science column. Its author, Goldacre, suggests the media that peddle such untruths should be “in the dock, alongside [Dr Andrew] Wakefield”. Despite the kicking, morale remains high at ‘The Observer’. Many of its own journalists thought the story deserved a good trashing.

The Independent July 22nd 2007

Whatever you think about Andrew Wakefield, the real villains of the MMR scandal are the media. Just one week before his GMC hearing, yet another factless “MMR causes autism” news story appeared: and even though it ran on the front page of our very own Observer, I am dismantling it on this page. We’re all grown-ups around here.

[…]

Nothing has changed, and this scare will never be allowed to die. If we had the right regulatory structures, almost every section of the media would be in the dock, alongside Wakefield.

Dr Ben Goldacre in The Guardian July 18 2007

New fears over big surge in autism’; ‘I told the truth all along, says doctor at the heart of autism row’. Headlines in last week’s Observer (8 July) provide a media boost for Dr Andrew Wakefield as he faces charges of professional misconduct at the UK General Medical Council (GMC) over the conduct of the research that first suggested a link between the MMR vaccine and autism in 1998.  [read on]

Dr Michael Fitzpatrick in Spiked Online July 17th 2007

What the Blogs say about the Observer and Autism

These are the most recent blogs (last seven days) courtesy of Google that add something new to the debate. Lots of others either linked to or repeated Ben Goldacre’s excellent rebuttals in his badscience blog or to Mike Fitzpatrick’s equally trenchant piece in Spiked Online.

A couple of weeks ago The Observer (UK ‘quality’ Sunday paper) printed an article claiming an as yet unpublished study shows a dramatic rise in the prevalence of autism. They also managed to crowbar in the MMR vaccine as well just to raise the general levels of hysteria. [ read on ]

This Sunday The Observer nearly apologizes for its disgraceful front page report on Autism a fortnight ago. But they still don’t get it. [ read on ] I wrote this one :-)

The Observer deserves sackcloth and ashes for its autism, MMR coverage. The British Medical Journal (BMJ) embarrassed itself by uncritically reproducing that 1 in 58 figure but at least it had the good grace to take a piece by Dr Ben Goldacre that criticised the media coverage of this issue. [ read on ]

It’s one thing to get a story wrong. Everyone does that – I’ve certainly done a couple of howlers in my time. It’s quite another to, on being informed of your howler, try and cover it up. And, it appears, this is exactly what The Observer is doing after it’s truly appaling MMR/autism front story from last weekend. [ read on ]

This article and its subsequent coverage in the other press has set back public understanding of this subject by several years and unreasonably made the public question science even more, ironically when it is proper science that is the only way to truth in this, rather than the mumbo-jumbo “science” practised by Wakefield. [ read on ]

The main issue is that the Observer misinterpreted the results of this unpublished research. The paper claimed the research showed an increase in the prevalence of autism. Based on this misinterpretation it then blamed the supposed increase on the MMR vaccination, saying that two of the seven authors of the report privately thought the MMR jab might be partly to blame for the alleged rise in autism. [read on ]

Last week I blogged about the, now infamous, MMR  piece by Dennis Campbell in the Observer. Campbell’s piece contained this.

“the MMR jab which babies receive at 12 to 15 months, might be partly to blame. Dr. Fiona Scott and Dr. Carol Stott both say it could be a factor in small numbers of children.”

Dr Scott subsequently e-mailed Ben Goldacre. The e-mail contained the serious allegation that some of the stuff in the Observer piece had been “fabricated”. [read on]

A short break from your usual Patrick Holford coverage – courtesy of some more awful mainstream media MMR reporting. It was disappointing to see the Observer running such god-awful autism/MMR stories, but to see the BMJ pick up the Observer’s inaccurate figures (the claim that 1 in 58 children is on the autistic spectrum) is even more disturbing. [read on ]

In the aftermath of the Observer debacle, one of those described in the original piece as being an MMR believer responded in the comment thread of The Guardian readers editor page. Her words are very telling and show, once more, what a shoddy and deliberately misleading piece of work this was. [ read on ]

Speaking of Bad Science and bad reporting and how the two seem to go together so frequently, Ben Goldacre goes after The Observer big time in yesterday’s Bad Science column. The Observer, of course, continued to do its bit on behalf of scientific illiteracy with scare story on 9 July over yet another purported link between the MMR vaccine and the apparent rise in autism in the UK [read on ]

 I’m annoyed with the Observer. I had a nice Holford Watch post mostly written – looking at some particularly odd claims for vitamin C – and was planning on spending the rest of the day relaxing with a newspaper. Then I saw the Observer’s truly dismal (2nd) attempt at an apology for their terrible MMR/Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD) coverage. Now I can’t buy myself an Observer, and feel obliged to insert a break in your usual Patrick Holford coverage to write another post on the Observer. [ read on ]

Most significant of all is Fiona Fox’s contribution. Fiona Fox is director of the Science Media Centre and according to her blog, after sending a note to Denis Campbell warning him that she could not defend his piece to angry scientists.

The result was an invitation to meet with him, the readers’ editor and a variety of other Observer news editors at their offices. So, with two leading MMR experts at my side, I went to highlight the concerns.

According to their website

The Science Media Centre is first and foremost a press office for science when science hits the headlines. We provide journalists with what they need in the form and time-frame they need it when science is in the news – whether this be accurate information, a scientist to interview or a feature article.

If you read Fiona Fox’s blog she makes quite plain the help and advice that the SMC offered to the Observer in the aftermath of their diasterous front page story. Judging by their continued weaseling in today’s edition, The Observer is still clinging to the wreckage of its original story despite the advice of the SMC.

As an added irony, when I looked up who funds the SMC  I found the Associated Press (Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday, Evening Standard) DailyExpress, Trinity Mirror (Daily Mirror, Sunday Mirror, Daily Record, the People etc.) and News International (Times, Sunday Times, Sun) all represented. In fact, apart from the Telegraph and the Independent, nearly every national newspaper in the UK supports the SMC except the owners of the Guardian and the Observer.

There has been a lot of discussion recently about how bloggers cannot meet the standards  of professional journalists. Judging from this incident I am not sure that I aspire to the standards of journalists like Denis Campbell. I will end with a modest proposal from Brian Deer in the comments section of Kev’s blog.

My suggestion is that people should write to the Observer and suggest that, since there is still so much confusion about the duty of reporters, and what – on this matter of grave public interest, affecting the safety of children – are a newspaper’s reasonable duties to accuracy, the Observer should join with the complaining readers and refer the matter – jointly and with agreement – to the Press Complaints Commission for adjudication.

See what they say to that!

My letter is in the post. I even put a stamp on the envelope.  If I get a response I will let you know next week.

The Observer replies over Wakefield, autism and MMR.

This Sunday The Observer nearly apologizes for its disgraceful front page report on Autism a fortnight ago. But they still don’t get it. Today’s Observer says that,

The report from the ARC was entitled the Final Report of a three-year research project for the Shirley Foundation, a private charitable trust that has an interest in the issue of autism. The foundation paid almost £300,000 for the study which Dr Scott, one of the authors, described in an internal email as ‘very thorough’. As such The Observer believed it legitimate to report its findings, given the apparent status of the work. Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, the director of the ARC, has subsequently said that the data in the report is still being analysed and is therefore incomplete.

  •  Final Report in this context means final report to the funding body. It cannot be equated with the final report of the research team to their peers. This was an academic work in progress. When they eventually spoke to Professor Baron-Cohen the Observer learned that the data in the report is still being analysed and is therefore incomplete. Therefore it is not a legitimate source for their story.
  • The Observer claims they were unable to contact Dr Scott prior to publication. Post publication, the Times and the Telegraph had no problem contacting Dr Scott.
  • Meanwhile Dr Scott had to contact the Observer via their online comments form in order to respond to their misrepresentation of her views. But they are able t0 quote “internal” (i.e. private) emails from Dr Scott.
  • So we have a prestigious national newspaper that has access to a private document (the interim report of the research team to its funding agency) and access to the private emails of one of the researchers. But said newspaper is unable to obtain public access to either the lead researcher (Professor Simon Baron-Cohen) or Dr Scott prior to publication.
  • Here is a thought. Why didn’t the Observer delay publication until after they had spoken to  Professor Baron-Cohen and Dr. Scott? This was not breaking news. They could have waited. Surely, this report’s timing was not influenced by the same reporter’s “exclusive” interview with Andrew Wakefield in the same issue, prior to his disciplinary hearing before the GMC?
  • Here is another thought. Someone offers the Observer a story on a plate: leaked report; leaked emails; background briefing. Oh, and while you are at it, how about an exclusive interview with the main man? 
  • Should they check it out or accept it uncritically? What do you think happened?

Meanwhile, today’s statement merely compounds their error. To continue:

The 1 in 58 figure was described by one of the authors as ‘our primary analysis’ and was the only figure presented in the Final Report’s summary. It was therefore highlighted by The Observer. In the body of the ARC’s report the figures 1 in 74 and 1 in 94 were also published.

  • Do tell. Which one of the authors described 1 in 58 as our primary analysis? Dr Stott, anybody?

The Observer should have reported these figures in the news story so that readers were aware that there were different interpretations of the findings. That they were left out was due to a reporting and editing error.

  • A very misleading error in my opinion. And just to be clear, reporting errors are made by reporters. Editing errors are made by editors. People screwed up here. The people should admit their error and apologize.

There’s more.

Dr Stott, one of the authors of the Final Report and described by The Observer as believing that there maybe a link in a small number of cases between MMR and autism, does some work for Thoughtful House, the autism centre in Texas that treats children from all over the world. Dr Wakefield works at Thoughtful House. Dr Stott’s links to Dr Wakefield should have been made clear in The Observer news report.

  • So Stott and Wakefield are both employees of Thoughtful House? They bump into each other in the canteen now and again? Not exactly. Wakefield is Executive Director of Thoughtful House. Stott is a senior researcher there. She and Wakefield have issued joint press releases answering critics of Thoughtful House.  Does that make it clear?

It gives me no pleasure to see a newspaper like the Observer squirm like this. Your sister paper, the Guardian, has already published a damning critique of the whole affair. Why continue to defend the indefensible when a simple, “Sorry, we were wrong.” would have sufficed?