PCC Upholds Daily Mail’s Right To Distort

November 18, 2011 at 5:34 pm (Anti-Vaccination, Media) (, , , , , , , )

Recently, I wrote about the zombie Daily Mail article on MMR. I made a complaint to the PCC about the article in question, and have now received notice of their decision.

Commission’s decision in the case of Cole v The Mail on Sunday

The complainant considered that the article was misleading and distorted the information regarding research that claimed that the MMR vaccine was linked to autism and bowel disease in children.

The Commission made clear that newspapers are fully entitled to report on scientific research, and the choice of research to cover was a matter of discretion for the editor. It noted that the question of whether the MMR vaccine was linked to autism or bowel disease was at the time a controversial and widely debated topic. It made clear that the newspaper was entitled to report on and interpret the findings of the research undertaken by the Wake Forest University School of Medicine. It was for the Commission to decide whether the newspaper’s report of the coverage raised a breach of the Code.

The Commission turned first to the complaint that the article was misleading as it claimed there was a controversy over the MMR vaccine. It acknowledged that the complainant did not agree that the vaccine was controversial; however, there had been widespread public debate regarding the vaccine and as such, the newspaper was entitled to refer to it as controversial. It was satisfied that readers in general would not be misled by the description.

The Commission then turned to the complaint that there had never been any evidence to link the vaccine with bowel disease and autism. The article was published on the 28th of May 2006 – at the time of the article’s publication the research of the Wake Forest University School of Medicine had established that 70 out of 82 children with regressive autism and bowel disease had proved positive for the measles virus. These findings were clearly being held out by the research team as evidence to support its theory that there was a link between the virus and autism and bowel disease. It made clear, in the quotation of Dr Walker that the study did not make any specific conclusions in regards to the vaccine, but a link was implied. The complainant might not have agreed that such findings were credible evidence, however, that did not prohibit the newspaper from reporting the findings. The Commission was satisfied that readers would understand that this had been a controversial and widely debated topic, and they were free to make up their own minds on the issue.

The Complainant considered the article failed to acknowledge evidence showing the vaccine was safe and gave undue prominence to anti-vaccine advocates. This he considered distorted the information regarding the vaccine. The Commission noted that the article was focused on presenting the results and possible implications of this particular piece of research. The assertions that the findings implied a link between the vaccine and autism and bowel disease were clearly portrayed as the views of Dr Walker, the team leader of the university research team. Furthermore, the Department of Health’s position on the matter was included.

Finally, the complainant was concerned that the research was unpublished and non-peer reviewed. This did not mean that the newspaper could not report the research. It clearly attributed the study to those who undertook it and readers would understand that any conclusions drawn had been taken from the study. Given there was no suggestion that the details of the study had been misrepresented, the Commission did not establish a breach of the Code. The Commission noted that the article was not asserting the outcome of the research as fact. It presented the findings and their significance, as the views of Dr Walker, the team leader of the research team and Dr Wakefield, a doctor who had previously suggested a possible link between the vaccine and autism and bowel disease in 1998. The Commission did not establish a breach of Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Code.

The PCC have asserted that the choice of research to cover is the editor’s. This means that editors are free to distort by cherry-picking research that is contrary to scientific consensus but fits their agenda.

The PCC argue that “the question of whether the MMR vaccine was linked to autism or bowel disease was at the time a controversial and widely debated topic”, but the only controversy was a false one stoked by the media and, in particular, the Daily Mail – the PCC appears to be arguing that it is acceptable for newspapers to manufacture a controversy and then report on it as if it is real.

The PCC “made clear that the newspaper was entitled to report on and interpret the findings of the research undertaken by the Wake Forest University School of Medicine”, and don’t seem to be concerned that the Mail’s interpretation was at odds with that of the researchers.

The PCC state that the article “made clear, in the quotation of Dr Walker that the study did not make any specific conclusions in regards to the vaccine, but a link was implied”. No link was implied, according to Dr Walker – who strongly warned against making the leap to suggesting that the measles vaccine might actually cause autism: ““That is not what our research is showing,” said Stephen J. Walker, Ph.D., an assistant professor of physiology and pharmacology”; “Walker says the new research does not support the connection, and he notes that the results have not even been published in a peer-reviewed journal”.

The Commission was satisfied that “readers would understand that this had been a controversial and widely debated topic, and they were free to make up their own minds on the issue”. The issue I have with readers making up their own minds on the issue is that they would be doing so on the basis of a misleading and distorted article and not on the basis of a true and accurate overview of the scientific research.

The Commission noted that the article was focused on presenting the results and possible implications of this particular piece of research. My argument is that the results and possible implications of this particular piece of research do not stand alone – they must be viewed in the context of the scientific research in this area as a whole. The commission do not appear to understand that cherry-picking distorts – to present one anomalous finding and ignore the swathes of contradictory evidence is to distort the true picture.

The PCC decided that “the assertions that the findings implied a link between the vaccine and autism and bowel disease were clearly portrayed as the views of Dr Walker, the team leader of the university research team”. If I compare this claim to the actual views of Dr Walker, as quoted above, I can only conclude that Walker’s views were misrepresented by the Mail. This misrepresentation is misleading to readers.

In June 2009, I contacted the PCC to ask them a question: Does the commission have access to a scientific expert who could assist them with complaints relating to inaccuracy in the reporting of scientific research? The response was to tell me that “the Commission has no ‘scientific expert’ to assist with its complaints.” Personally, I think the PCC needs such assistance. I have a pending complaint over the recent Daily Mail article on the HPV vaccine. I don’t expect a satisfactory outcome.

7 Comments

  1. Martin said,

    Well it *is* publically controversial, for whatever reason. You can’t say it isn’t controversial because you believe – firmly and with good reason – a particular viewpoint, when you’re well aware that many many other people believe something quite different. That’s pretty much the definition of controversy! I share your views on this, but to persuade people to vaccinate requires more than dismissing the argument as non existent, or their fears as groundless, even if they are.

    Similarly interpretations by journalists may be – quite rightly – at odds with the interpretations of the original researchers, as yours are when assessing Wakefield’s research. FWIW I’m writing a similar complaint to Science about an article on Zebras of all things, as they’ve put a spin on it that is completely opposite to the findings. I don’t expect much.

    Handing over the remit to publically interpret research to a few bottleneck ‘scientific experts’ has all sorts of issues, not least of which is the qualification, selection and monitoring of these experts. Similarly ‘allowing’ only peer reviewed studies to be reported. In the meantime we have a public making the decisions themselves, through the messy medium of media, distorted at every step, but still far less worse than abrogating individual thought and (ir)responsibility.

    Salute the effort though. I should get off my backside and write that zebra letter…

  2. deetee said,

    I presume this PCC response written when the Chaiman of the PCC and the Editor of the Daily Mail were still one and the same person.

  3. Derek Hordle said,

    Don’t expect any better from the new head of the PCC, David Hunt, because he thinks it is all YOUR fault.

    “But, I counter, surely the major problems occur because of the tabloids? “No,” he replies, “I think the greater challenge is with the bloggers, whether it’s Guido Fawkes or whoever.””

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2011/nov/13/lord-hunt-pcc-interview

  4. Andysnat said,

    Nice try, and from what you say, the PCC seems to have been misinformed about the views of the lead researcher.

  5. Dave said,

    Ask to appear at the Levinson enquiry, as a witness to the incompetance of the PCC

  6. mike ward said,

    Nice try anyway JDC

  7. Phil Alexander said,

    What Dave said in #5 – this shows a staggering lack of competence in the PCC: as you have said, it gives the press free rein to make stuff up, then use their own made-up rubbish as proof of pretty much anything they want.

    Absolutely appalled at their inability to see the implications of both the original article and their judgment of it. >:-(

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