The Dangers of False Science Reporting and Our Duty as Communicators

March 16, 2015

In December 2009, the trial known as MDP 301 released results that the microbicide gel known as PRO 2000 had not shown efficacy among women in Zambia, South Africa, Tanzania and Uganda. These results were not unique as many efficacy trials in HIV prevention and in other arenas have shown flat results, or at times even increased risk. However, what happened after the released results was unique. Blogs and online media framed the trial as “exploitation”, resulting in skepticism about future HIV microbicide trials. Six years later, the effects of that misleading reporting can still be felt. That’s why the recent Toronto Star article caught my eye.

On February 5th the Toronto Star published an investigative article on the HPV vaccine headlined “A wonder drug’s dark side”. The article focused on several young women who became sick after receiving Merck’s HPV vaccine, Gardasil. Although the article stated that the illnesses were not conclusively linked to the vaccine, the photos, front page headline and anecdotes likely led some readers to believe that the Star had uncovered the “truth” about the vaccine.

The Star removed the article a week later but not before it fell under heavy criticism by other media outlets:

The Washington Post quoted Vox Science writer Julia Belluz, “everything wrong with vaccine reporting in one dangerous package. These tales of suffering and death are awful. Stomach turning. But they are just that: stories.” JAMA also wrote “Not all reported events are systematically validated, and many may have only coincidentally followed vaccination,” the study said, adding that underreporting, inconsistency in the quality and completeness of reported data, stimulated reporting due to extensive news coverage and reporting biases could also skew these numbers.”

Global News quoted Dr. Jen Gunter, an OB/GYN, “Paragraph after paragraph is dedicated to detailing the terrible things that happened to these young girls and their families and in an Oprah-esque move the wealth of information detailing the vaccine’s safety was distilled to a few comments easy to ignore in among the trail of destruction allegedly due to the vaccine. It also quoted Julia Belluz, “In medicine, anecdotes are considered the least helpful type of evidence. They are biased, unrepresentative, and, as often as not, misleading,” wrote Belluz. “What’s worse, while the Star cherry-picked damning cases about the vaccine’s alleged harms, they ignored the reams of independent studies we have involving millions of women around the world that show the vaccine is safe.”

CBC quoted John Cruickshank, the Star publisher, from his As it Happens Interview: “”We failed in this case. We let down. And it was in the management of the story at the top,” It also brought to light how two Star staff lashed out at critics: Michael Cooke, editor-in-chief of the Star, responded to Vox’s Julia Belluz: “’Stop gargling our bathwater and take the energy to run yourself your own, fresh tub.’ Cooke also called a reader an ‘idiot’ on Twitter.” Columnist Heather Mallick from the Star also criticized Dr. Jen Gunter by writing: “Here’s a tip: don’t read a website run by a rural doctor whose slogan is ‘wielding the lasso of truth.”

The Los Angeles Times writes: “But has the damage already been done? The article should stay online, as a warning to readers — not of the purported dangers of a life-saving vaccine, but of the real perils of shoddy science reporting.”

After much criticism, the Star printed a commentary titled “Science shows HPV vaccine has no dark side”. They write: “The Star presented the stories of women who have suffered greatly. The article was engaging, dramatic and might have created fear. But study after study has shown that there is no causal link between the events the Star reported and the vaccine. About 169 million doses of the HPV vaccine have been administered worldwide. In any given large population, there will be illness and death. This is a statistical fact. To attribute rare devastating occurrences to a vaccine requires evidence of causation, of which the international scientific community and the Star article have none.”

Thankfully, in this case, there was a swift response to this misleading, “investigative” report that resulted in the take down of the report. Had it not, there could have been serious implications for the future of the HPV vaccine and/or other vaccines. Although my hope is that this is a solitary incident, I know that this is not the last time we will see misreported facts. But this highlights the important role science reporting plays, and especially in sharing new information about health research. The things that we write and say shape public perception — and they have consequences that can have long-lasting effects.