One of the most hallowed principles of journalism is balance – and it’s more important than ever in health reporting

The media’s role in giving due prominence to expert voices, not those elevated by a million Twitter followers, is sorely needed

Alex Matthews-King
Monday 07 January 2019 03:20
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The requirement for journalists to leave their views – or those of their editor – entirely at the door has always had a fairly rose-coloured tint.

But even the most slanted political story will give context and a brief quote, usually tucked at the end, for interested parties to put their side.

However, in health, and any specialism where science and policy making collide, these principles can all too easily be non-evidenced, with harmful claims recirculated in the media in the name of impartiality.

False balance been effectively exploited for decades by the tobacco industry. Though the fight to sow doubt on the evidence of the harms of smoking was lost, it has transformed into a battle for an individual’s right to harm themselves without government interference.

The regular rows over climate change at the BBC, where impartiality rules leave producers walking a bureaucratic tightrope that too often results in fringe voices being aired as experts, also shows how journalism can be led astray.

Disgraced doctor Andrew Wakefield famously helped father the modern anti-vaxxer movement, with a since withdrawn study in The Lancet medical journal linking the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine to autism.

Wakefield’s fearmongering made him a cause célèbre for parts of the media, but investigative reporting, in this case the Sunday Times, also exposed significant conflicts of interest that led to him losing his medical licence.

By that time the damage had been done and vaccination rates in the UK have taken two decades to recover.

Today, social media gives an unmoderated arena for vested interests such as Wakefield to prey on the understandable fears of millions of people and a record-breaking measles outbreak across Europe in 2018 is the result.

The media’s role in giving due prominence to expert voices, not those elevated by a million Twitter followers, has never been more important.

At The Independent we strive – not always successfully – to achieve this through groups such as the Science Media Centre, set up in recognition of the scientific establishment’s failure to respond robustly to the MMR scandal, which provides access to experts who can give an impartial view on a topic.

This means journalists under tight deadlines are less reliant on a study’s author, or the alternative voices whose vested interests mean they’re always available to comment.

And, as the story this week of Italy’s medical research chief resigning over the populist government’s anti-scientific sentiments (particularly around vaccination) shows, these stories won’t just disappear.

Yours,

Alex Matthews-King

Health correspondent

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