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Follow the Story

Collide-a-ScapeBy Keith KloorOctober 4, 2010 10:22 PM


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The crusading, hydra-headed anti-vaccine movement deserves more consistent coverage in the media. Here's the title of today's press release from the American Academy of Pediatrics:

How the anti-vaccine movement threatens America's children

Paul Offit, a pediatrician and the author of "Autism's False Prophets," (who didn't tour bookstores because of death threats he received from the anti-vaccine community) will be the plenary speaker today at the American Academy of Pediatrics conference in San Francisco. According to the press release, here are the themes he will touch on:

  • The origins of religious and philosophical exemptions to vaccines in the U.S.;

  • The impact of those exemptions on vaccine rates and the spread of vaccine-preventable diseases;

  • The delicate balance between individual freedoms and societal good.

Says Offit:

Parents are bombarded with false stories about the dangers of vaccines, and the result is that some are backing away from vaccinating their children. This is tragic, because it leaves children vulnerable to deadly diseases, and it lowers the immunity of the entire community.

Offit is the subject of an excellent 2009 story in Wired magazine by Amy Wallace. Shortly after the piece was published last Fall, Wallace got slimed with all manner of vitriol from vaccine opponents and sued by a charismatic leader of the anti-vaccine movement. The suit was later dismissed. At an NYU event last Thursday, I heard Wallace talk about the jarring experience. She seems to have taken it in stride and good humor. (It probably helps that Conde Nast--Wired's corporate parent--was highly supportive and paid all her legal bills.) As this event was geared towards journalists covering science, much of the discussion (which was moderated by Robert Lee Hotz, a WSJ science columnist), focused on how Wallace went about reporting and writing the story. Wallace's meta description of the interrelated themes explored in her piece strikes me as fertile territory for editors who want to follow up:

I see this as about a movement in our culture, about people afraid to vaccinate their kids, and about distrust of experts.

At one point, Hotz asked Wallace: "How do you continue the journalistic discussion" of this story? In response, she said that "deluging people with data" on the safety of vaccines wouldn't work. Instead, she suggested that narrative story-telling was the only thing likely to cut through all the misinformation and distrust of science. But that means editors and writers have to be creative and dogged in pursuing those stories.

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