Saturday, August 04, 2007

The Observer Still Doesn't Understand Corrections of Fact

To recap: on July 8, The Observer sullied its reputation as a quality newspaper by publishing two articles that were breathtakingly inaccurate. They added to their ignominy by subsequently issuing clarifications that were nothing of the sort (neither apologising nor clarifying).

Along with many other people, I wrote to The Observer to correct some inaccuracies. My email is as follows; I have yet to receive an acknowledgement and these matters are still outstanding.

From: Shinga
Date: 08-Jul-2007 12:32
Subject: Corrections to Campbell's Articles
To: Readers' Editor

Dear Sir/Madam,

I'm sure that you will receive many well-founded objections to the two companion pieces by Denis Campbell. I wish to comment on some of the many factual errors in these pieces but shall concentrate on the Wakefield interview in this post.

The factual errors are so numerous that even picking this short selection at random yields several examples:
Critics point out that the US court case is not about the MMR vaccine itself but centres on the use of a preservative called thimerosal, which contains 50 per cent mercury and until a few years ago was added to routine vaccinations given to children in the US under one. Crucially, it has never been an element of the MMR vaccine here.
The Autism Omnibus Hearings have included extensive discussion of the MMR vaccine. The various experts for both the petitioners and respondents have discussed the MMR vaccine, the claimed presence of wild or vaccine strain measles virus in biological samples, and various hypotheses that include biological mechanisms for the contribution of thiomersal/thimerosal and MMR vaccines in the aetiology of autism. Some examples follow; all quotations are from the court transcripts (pdf files):

Mr Matanoski of the legal team for the Secretary of Health and Human Services discussed MMR in his resumed opening comments on Day 6:
We want you to be sure in your own mind that MMR vaccine is not causing autism because you've had good evidence to look at and
consider on that...[pg 10 of 345]

A serious accusation has been leveled. A serious accusation has been leveled against an important part of the public health arsenal against a preventable disease. An accusation has been leveled that MMR vaccine causes autism. That accusation must be answered, and we will answer it...

This accusation goes against a vaccine that is designed to prevent a killing disease. [pg 11 of 345]

...we are going to put on the evidence this morning and throughout this week that will allow you to effectively deal with that and to show you that MMR vaccine is indeed safe. [pg 16 of 345]

You heard from Dr. Hepner [one of the petitioners' expert witnesses: Day 3], and frankly, I think the PSC [Petitioners' Steering Committee] may have cringed at one part of her testimony, that is, when she said that MMR vaccine causing autism is an unproven hypothesis. [pg 18 of 345]
Similarly, on Day 12, Mr Powers, for the Petitioners Steering Committee (PSC), said:
You have a case here [the Cedillo case] that is a test case for the theory, the general theory that a combination of exposure to thimerosal-containing vaccines with a significant dose of ethyl mercury early in a child's life, combined then with MMR, can result in a complex system response that present symptoms that can get diagnosed as autism.

And in particular a suppressed immune system from the thimerosal in the vaccines, the introduction of the attenuated live measles virus then persists, and the persistence of that virus leading to a complex biological process of disease...
[pg 19 of 49 or 2887]
From the same transcript of Day 12, Mr Matanoski:
You need to find whether Michelle Cedillo's autism occurred before her vaccine. You need to find whether the PSC has proven that autistic spectrum disorders can be caused by MMR.

Whether or not there's inflammation in Michelle's Cedillo bowel or intestines, you need to find whether or not MMR can cause autistic spectrum disorder. [pg 30 of 49 or 2898]
Prof. Bustin's testimony is entirely concerned with the discussion of whether or not the findings of measles virus in the biological samples (a foundation stone of the work of Wakefield and those who claim to have replicated his findings) can be relied upon. In brief, he discusses his investigations and the expert report that he had prepared for the UK MMR litigation; he reports that the Unigenetics findings are unsound.

It is unusual for a misunderstanding to be so widely propagated that an government agency has to issue a clarification that a substance has never been part of a vaccination, but the FDA has done that for thimerosal and MMR.

MMR is a live vaccine, it would be unwise to add the thimerosal preservative to it because it would inactivate it and render it useless. Thiomersal/thimerosal any similar mercury compounds have never been a component of MMR anywhere.

Amidst the many complaints that you may receive about these articles, it would be helpful to correct these errors.

I know that other people (notably Jon of Holford Watch) have contacted Readers' Editor Steve Pritchard of The Observer with similar concerns and they have received unsatisfactory replies. I may well discuss some of these responses tomorrow if The Observer continues to fail to correct/retract those pieces. However, for now, I will remark that the only proper response to Pritchard's latest response is to be scornful. For a hint as to the tenor of the response, assume that the Readers' Editor requires us to believe that the informed reading public has misinterpreted Scoop Campbell's writings, rather than that Campbell made a mistake or that Pritchard erred in supporting him. Pritchard seems to have overlooked that if Jon's interpretation erred, and mine erred, then so did David Batty's (who reproduced some of those facts in a piece for The Guardian, a piece that has now been edited to remove those claims).

It defies belief that a credible Readers' Editor for a quality broadsheet can have a writing style that makes Scoop Campbell's look subtle and sophisticated coupled with New York Governor Eliot Spitzer's instinct for framing a sincere apology (albeit Pritchard seems to believe that the mistake lies with the readers/correspondents, not the staff). Pritchard's attitude is the more incomprehensible when one considers that one of these infamous articles has already been withdrawn for unspecified reasons that may be related to possible legal investigations.

I find this issue particularly irritating in the context of a recent, thoughtful article in Seed Magazine the outlines the difficulties faced by science journalists in developing countries:
Science and technology writers in the developing world are taking on issues that have profound implications for the countries and emerging economies in which they report. One need think only of the African AIDS crisis, climate change, prescription-drug access, agricultural biotechnology, bird flu, and many other specific science issues that have huge importance for the developing world. Perhaps the most crucial issue in places like Africa and South Asia is health policy, which is inextricably intertwined with social progress--more-productive nations tend to be those whose citizens are healthier and live longer. Philip Hilts, a former science and medical reporter for both the New York Times and the Washington Post who has spent many years working in developing countries, observed that as health improves, wealth follows. By informing governments, NGOs, and the international community about their countries' health policies, science writers in the developing world are performing a job that's fundamental to international development.

Yet despite having such a critical role to play, in many cases science journalists from the developing world face a series of hurdles that I, comfortably ensconced in Washington, D.C., simply never encounter. For some of these writers, basic research resources like cheap and reliable telephone service, libraries, and even dictionaries can be scarce. And while the physical act of researching and writing can present dramatic logistical challenges, science correspondents in some parts of the world are also faced with the worry that offending despotic or corrupt governments will result in retribution...

The specific challenges faced by the science journalist—getting access to scientists, getting them to talk about their work, the work of their peers, or recent studies and their implications—are also more difficult to overcome.
I have not complained about matters of interpretation in the above email but about facts that are easily checked and verified. Campbell, Pritchard and their support staff on The Observer are awash with resources. MMR, the safety of the vaccination programme, autism, and children's health are all significant areas for public concern and journalism in these areas has a particular significance and responsibility. As Fiona Fox explained, they could have had access to all the scientific expertise that they wanted to check facts both big and small, and to talk through the likely implications of those articles. If they were to compare their resources to those of their colleagues in other countries, then that is an additional cause for shame.

Related reading

Wakefield: another triumph for mainstream journalism in the UK
Autism: The Truth Plus Sensitivity, Specificity and All That Is Decent to Reveal About Predictive Values
The British Medical Journal Embarrasses Itself by Reproducing That Notorious 1 in 58 Figure
Ben Goldacre Breaks His Silence on the Media Coverage of the MMR, Autism Stories
Observer Gives A PoMo Clarification: Retract Already
Anthony Cox: How virulent were The Observer’s MMR articles?
Myth: Measles Is A Trivial Illness, There's No Point to Vaccination
MMR Vaccine Does Not Contain Mercury, Thiomersal, Thimerosal and It Never Has
Myth: Autism Omnibus Hearings Have Not Included Evidence About MMR

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