Health and Science News for Parents

When reporting with “false balance” strikes in my home state, I take it personally

written by Tara Haelle

Journalism is not rocket science. But it’s also not serving fries at McDonald’s. Being a journalist — particularly a credible one — means taking on a significant responsibility. In an age where anyone can take to the Internet and spout their thoughts — right or wrong, credible or BS, intelligible or nonsensical — journalists must continue to adhere to a code of ethics, including presenting accurate and appropriately balanced information.

A journalist who writes about health and science issues, however, has an even greater responsibility. Readers may make important decisions about their own health based on that journalist’s reporting. False balance in science and health journalism is arguably a more serious issue, and therefore greater responsibility, than in political journalism. False balance in political journalism might lead you to vote for the “wrong” candidate. False balance in health and science journalism (as the Columbia Journalism Review explored two months ago) might kill you, or, worse, someone you love, like your child.

Hence, I was livid as I read an irresponsibly and lazily written article about vaccination in The Daily Herald, a paper from the Chicago metropolitan area town of Elgin. I’m livid because I live in Illinois, so the implications of journalist James Fuller’s irresponsible and shoddy reporting could potentially affect my family, including my three-year-old son. And I’m livid because I am professional science journalist myself who has reported on vaccines extensively. The difference between Fuller and me is that I do my homework* (as do dozens of other science and health journalists**) and I understand the responsibility I’m taking on when I write about public health issues.

Writing about health and science is different than writing about politics, city hall, the crime beat, courts, sports, education, business and the like. You cannot rely only on sources and quotes to carry your story. You have to KNOW your science and know who is credible. And although you should never insult your reader’s intelligence, you must help them understand where the science is and where it isn’t in no uncertain terms.

It’s not news that Americans have poor scientific literacy. (Newsflash: Humans and apes evolved from a common ancestor and the earth is heating up due, at least in part, to a human-caused increase in carbon in the atmosphere. If you doubt either of these, feel free to stop reading now. Also, this has been edited from the original to be more accurately written.) Therefore, science/health journalists must take extra care to avoid false balance by ensuring they have done the (often intense and time-consuming) legwork. They are thoroughly educated on the issue they are writing about, they understand who is a credible expert and who is not, they understand the scientific consensus (if there is one) and the weight of experts (legitimate or self-described) who disagree with the consensus. They understand the evidence. They understand the implications of their story. They have talked to more people than they can quote in their story, and they have read far more than they can possibly summarize for their readers. They have to exercise superior judgment that requires a higher bar than is found in many other kinds of journalism. Ultimately, a science/health journalist must do the research, not just rely on handful of quoted sources to tell the story.

James Fuller failed to do that legwork. His article succumbs to the worst kind of false balance (it actually tilts dangerously against the scientific consensus), and his article flat out gets the science wrong.

Let’s start with the problems in the article. Then we’ll get to the science in a paragraph-by-paragraph analysis in which the scientific inaccuracies are particularly egregious.

Experienced journalists, like Fuller, understand not only the power of their words but the power of structure. The opening of a story matters, especially if it uses an anecdote. The final quote matters. The flow from one source’s perspectives to the next, or one salient point to the next, matters. Diction matters. All of these components come together to tell a story and frame how the reader experiences it — and what the reader takes away from it. Here are the ways Fuller used those components irresponsibly.

The lede (opening paragraph) is a sympathetic portrait of a healthy, unvaccinated child.
There are millions of healthy unvaccinated children in the U.S. But they also contract vaccine-preventable diseases at much higher rates than vaccinated children. The choice to open this article with such a child and ignore the consequences of his mother’s decision is intellectually dishonest. Further, painting a sympathetic person of a “free rider” is ethically questionable for a journalist reporting on a public health issue.

The story lacks ANY quotes from a parent who vaccinates.
I suppose this is only half true since the parent in the story vaccinated her first child, but a balanced story would include at least one, preferably more, parents who vaccinate and who explain why. They might add what they think about the danger their child is placed in by those in the community who do not vaccinate.

Worse, the story lacks ANY anecdotes from parents who have watched their children suffer, or die, from vaccine-preventable illnesses.
In a story, anecdotes and facts are not equal. In a perfect world, facts would trump anecdotes. In reality, anecdotes tap into our emotions and facts tap into our reason, but we remember the emotional information better and it has a stronger influence on our decisions. Portraying a healthy unvaccinated child without showing how a vaccine-preventable disease ravages a child’s body — especially if that child contracted the disease from an intentionally unvaccinated child — neglects to show the consequences of non-vaccinating parents and is irresponsible, neglectful reporting.

The story lacks ANY information about deaths from vaccine-preventable diseases.
It’s not as though these are hard to find. Heck, I did my entire Master’s report on it for my MA in journalism, and Illinois is currently experiencing its worst outbreak of pertussis since Joe McCarthy was rooting out Communists and Jackie Robinson was starring in his own biopic.

The story quotes a doctor who supports parents’ decisions to skip vaccines and/or delay vaccines. Both these views these go against the recommendations of the American Academy of Pediatrics, yet the journalist presents the doctor’s opinions as a voice of authority. This doctor is given a total of 12 paragraphs, compared to only 10 that discuss the risks of not vaccinating and the effectiveness of vaccines.

The story lacks any data, references, citations or links related to the many, many, many studies showing the correlation between low vaccination rates and higher disease incidence, between higher vaccine exemption rates and higher disease incidence, or between vaccination and lower severity of illness if contracted.

The story gives the kicker (the story’s last line, often a quote) to a non-vaccinating parent.
This is the spot reserved for the final take-home thought for the reader, but experienced journalists also know it’s where a journalist’s own sympathies often (though not always) are apparent. Either way, it’s never an accident who gets the final word. But in this story, the final word is a double foul: it goes to an inappropriate source and it makes a statement that directly contradicts the scientific evidence about vaccines.

The overarching problem: This story does not in any way, shape or form, SHOW the consequences of not vaccinating, either to the unvaccinated child or to the community at large. An effective journalist shows rather than tells. The only thing the reader is shown, across ten paragraphs that include the opening and closing images, is a parent who does not vaccinate her healthy, happy child — a child benefiting from the low risk of disease incidence in the U.S. because of herd immunity.

Here is a breakdown of the article:

  • 23 paragraphs focus on not vaccinating and promoting inaccurate information about vaccines, ten with the non-vaccinating parent and twelve with a pediatrician who is okay with parents not vaccinating or using delayed vaccination, against the recommendations of the AAP. Two sources used: a parent and a pediatrician.
  • 9 paragraphs, which do not begin until the story’s tenth paragraph, discuss the effectiveness and importance of vaccination. Two sources used: a pediatrician and an AAP representative.
  • 2 paragraphs include background information about Illinois
  • 2 paragraphs with false balance are disguised as “background information (14th and 15th paragraphs)

If that is not false balance (equal sources given, inaccurate information related to not vaccinating outweighing accurate information about effectiveness and safety of vaccination), I don’t know what is.


Now I’ll address the specifics of Fuller’s irresponsible and lazy reporting, including getting the science wrong (by not contradicting the pediatrician’s inaccurate statements with accurate information).

First six paragraphs: A parent discusses her healthy unvaccinated child and her opinion that vaccinating parents are apparently not “more dedicated” and as focused on “nutrition and general health” as she is, as she says: “But the real trouble is in not having enough people who are a bit more dedicated parents. It all goes back to nutrition and general health. We’re supposed to be able to fight these illnesses off. People are so afraid of death in the Western world. At this point, the push for vaccinations is more about money than saving people.”

Nice start to a public health story. There is no data to back up her final statement. And all those silly Westerners, all afraid of death and everything.

Two paragraphs: Stats are provided on non-vaccinating parents in the state and how bizarre Fuller apparently thinks this is “given the pressure to conform.” Had he spoken with any number of experts who have studied this, such as Deborah Wexler, Anna Dragsbaek, Kathryn Edwards, Saad Omer, Paul Offit or Nicola Klein, he might have a clue. He didn’t do his homework.

One paragraph states that “about a dozen doctors” are supportive of non-vaccinating parents (compared to how many who adhere to AAP recommendations?).

Four paragraphs provide quotes from a pediatrician representing the Illinois Department of Health who states that the “quality of the research” does not support non-vaccinating parents, that no study supports a link between vaccines and autism, and that an outbreak of measles can spread like wildfire even from one person.

This is good and important information to include, but it’s outnumbered and overshadowed by the other anti-vaccine information and it lacks specific data, of which there is plenty available. It also does not mention morbidity or mortality of measles. Ask the UK about that. They’re in the midst of a huge measles epidemic now.

One lengthy paragraph: Mother states “Why take a chance?” and the possible effects of vaccines are mentioned with the term “very rare” — which is not defined. Is “very rare” 1 in 1,000 or 1 in a million or 1 in 10 million? A reader wouldn’t know. The compensations on vaccine injuries claims are mentioned without explanation of how those claims are determined (which is very relevant to understanding whether causation was actually involved just because there was a settlement).

One two-sentence paragraph provides one of the most blatant juxtapositions of false balance in the article: “Soyemi said many of those negative experiences can’t be directly tied to the vaccines. At the same time, federal officials haven’t ruled them out as the cause.”

A pediatrician’s statement is not equal to that of “federal officials.” And it should be noted that this statement is not only the pediatrician’s but is also the stance of the AAP, the WHO, the Institute of Medicine, dozens of other medical organizations and hundreds of vaccines researchers.

Five short paragraphs: AAP chapter manager and the pediatrician note there is no disagreement about vaccines among experts and “immunizations are one of the most effective public health interventions that have ever been discovered.” AAP source suggests that a child with leukemia, for example, could die from measles.

This is a start, but… Where is the anecdote here? Where is the data? A reader is expected to take these quotes at face value after the first eight paragraphs about a sympathetic and healthy unvaccinated child?

TWELVE paragraphs provide quotes from a pediatrician who is sympathetic to non-vaccinating parents — TWELVE in a row, compared to the six that preceded it and then four higher up about the quality of the research not supporting vaccination. This is not even false balance. This is tilted toward anti-vaccination. In these 12 paragraphs, a pediatrician makes a number of scientifically inaccurate statements, so this is an ideal time to address the bad science in this article:
“What most pediatricians aren’t willing to discuss, Rardin said, is that vaccines don’t always work as well as advertised.” In fact, pediatricians who keep up with the research know exactly how well vaccines work and are honest about it. Vaccines work pretty darn well, most with over 90 percent effectiveness.

“Any vaccine that is manufactured is going to have a batch that is produced that, for whatever reason, ends up being more or less effective than the rest of the doses.”  This statement is scientifically false and has no data to back it up. It is irresponsible fear-mongering on the part of the pediatrician and the journalist.

“Vaccines are marketed and tested based on the benefits to the average person in the test groups for that drug, Rardin said. But in the larger population, not everyone is average.” Vaccines are tested and studied and re-studied and re-studied with millions and millions of children from all demographics, including those with weakened immune systems and any number of health conditions.

“It’s hard to find information out there that takes in all the risks and benefits.” Off the top of my head, I can immediately think of six great places: Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia’s Vaccine Education Center, the CDC, the WHO, the Immunization Partnership, the Immunization Action Coalition and the National Network for Immunization Information. This pediatrician seems pretty unfamiliar with some of the most reputable sources of health information in the world.

“In reality, there’s a lot we don’t know.” And there is a heck of a lot that we do know for those who look at the scientific evidence.

“There are vaccines that were on the market 10 years ago that are no longer out there because of problems.” This is almost accurate — it was in 1999 that a rotavirus vaccine was recalled, but DTP is much older, not that the pediatrician or journalist appear to know this history. Not providing any context, however, is irresponsible because the reader is left to wonder… and worry.

Four final paragraphs: We return to the parent who doesn’t vaccinate, who “is on an often daily mission to get more information about vaccines and alternative approaches into parents’ hands.” That is otherwise known as actively promoting misinformation and endangering public health, something a responsible health reporter would point out.

The final paragraph is given to the smug, non-vaccinating parent: “If your vaccines work, then you should have nothing to worry about, right?”  This is scientifically inaccurate and among the most dangerous statements in the article. If other parents do not vaccinate, herd immunity decreases. No vaccine is 100% effective, so as herd immunity declines, disease incidence increases. That places my child — my three-year-old child who lives in Illinois only a few hours away from this woman — at risk, enabled by an irresponsible reporter who is not adequately trained or experienced to report on public health and does not understand what true false balance is in a science/health story.

Fuller stated on Twitter, “False balance is when equal weight is given to the veracity of claims. That is not the case in my article.” In fact, he said it five times in a row, perhaps thinking if he repeated it often enough that it would change the fact that he still engaged in it. But it is the case in his article, as I have shown.

I will say, however, that his tweets also clued me in to part of the problem. His first tweet yesterday about this story read “If you’re awake, check me out on ABC, Channel 7 at about 8:45. I’ll be chatting about the surprisingly controversial world of vaccinations.”

Here’s the thing. There is not a controversy about vaccinations. The controversy was 15 years ago. If you missed it, here’s a nice summary. Or read about it from Brian Deer, the investigative reporter who played the biggest role in ending the controversy, along with the dozens of studies (pdf) by researchers. And if you did miss it, or you were under a rock for the 15 years, you have no business writing about this public health issue. In a lengthy Twitter discussion with me, Fuller tried to defend himself by mentioning the other article he wrote about religious exemptions (which also features a non-vaccinating parent). Though that is a better article, when you’re writing online articles, each one must stand on its own.

Fuller and, apparently, his editor believe legitimizing anti-vaccination sentiments by “giving voice to unconventional views” is okay. Fuller’s editor, Jim Davis, argues as much in his equally irresponsible editorial: “I’m sure there’s a line you cross between having a controversial viewpoint and espousing beliefs that are so outlandish as to not warrant consideration. Hollie Redinger, as much as you might disagree with her, doesn’t come close to crossing it.”

Actually, she does cross it. (And if there is any doubt about the tilt of Fuller’s article, the mom’s gloating on Facebook might offer a clue. Edit: this previously linked to post, which has since been hidden.) The opening lines of this editorial actually refer to an argument I made to Fuller in a private email prior to this article’s publication when I heard Fuller had spoken to various parents who do not vaccinate in preparation for an article. (I did not know Fuller when I sent him the email.) I gave the example that giving voice to “Holocaust deniers” is inappropriate because it legitimizes their view, rooted in false claims. I said that inappropriately giving anti-vaccine proponents a forum to promote their false information was similar if it was not accompanied by information that clearly showed the consequences of their decision. Am I justified in making this Godwin comparison? Well, let’s pose two questions: Who is physically harmed by a Holocaust denier? I’m sure a case could be made that some people can be, perhaps if the denier’s remarks support white supremacist groups that promote violence. But who is physically harmed by a parent who chooses not to vaccinate her child based on inaccurate pseudoscience? Any child who consequently contracts a vaccine-preventable disease from that unvaccinated child does. And children have died from that exact scenario. I don’t think my analogy is out of line.

The editor justifies the decision to run the story because “The motives are many and somewhat elusive, but there are 68,000 schoolchildren in Illinois who skipped at least one type of inoculation last year.” (I already noted that the motives are not elusive if you do the research.) There are approximately 3.1 million children in Illinois (pdf). So this unvaccinated child is among 2 percent in Illinois who have not been vaccinated, including those who cannot be because of medical conditions or are not because of limited health care access. This small a percentage of parents making irresponsible and risky decisions that endanger others in the community is justification to give them a platform to promote it to others? Seriously?

The editor states, “I feel that Fuller’s stories more than adequately address any dangers posed by the anti-vaccination advocates.” It’s time for that editor to retire because he has lost the ability to do his job effectively.

The kicker of this editorial goes to Fuller: “If they take the time to really find out your thinking, it can open the door to new understanding and respect even if you still disagree. I hope that’s what happens with the publishing of this story.” I do not respect another parent whose decisions increase the risk of harm to other children in the state. Nor do I respect the lazy, irresponsible reporting of a journalist, and editor, who have no business writing about public health before doing their homework.


*Before I published a single word on vaccines, I did the following:
  • Ordered and used more than a dozen books from Amazon, both “pro-vaccine,” “anti-vaccine” and those who think they’re in between, to familiarize myself with the issue
  • Took a class in epidemiology at the University of Texas at Austin
  • Interviewed Paul Offit
  • Interviewed Martin Myers, former director of the National Vaccine Program Office and author of Do Vaccines Cause That?!
  • Spoke with Barbara Loe Fisher, founder of the largest anti-vaccine organization in the U.S., at a screening for The Greater Good, a manipulative anti-vaccine “documentary” film full of inaccuracies
  • Interviewed four parents who stated their children were vaccine-injured
  • Interviewed more than six parents who lost their children to vaccine-preventable diseases
  • Corresponded with dozens of parents whose families had been affected by vaccine-preventable diseases
  • Met with the Bay Area Polio Survivors group in the greater Houston area
  • Spent a LOT of times on the sites I linked to in the article, including the CDC, WHO, CHOP’s Vaccine Education Center, the Immunization Partnership, the Immunization Action Coalition and the National Network for Immunization Information
  • Corresponded via email with over a dozen parents who stated their children were vaccine-injured
  • Interviewed anti-vaccine proponent Louise Habakus Kuo, author of The Vaccine Epidemic
  • Interviewed Sherri Tenpenny, a total quack of a doctor who believes vaccines are a conspiracy of the government and pharmaceutical companies to get kids sick and keep them sick for life
  • Interviewed Larry Pickering, Executive Secretary of the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices at the CDC
  • Corresponded with Arthur Allen, Slate journalist and author of Vaccine: The Controversial Story of Medicine’s Greatest Lifesaver
  • Corresponded with Bruce Gellin, Director of the National Vaccine Program Office
  • Interviewed Bob Sears in person for over an hour, author of the unfortunately best-selling The Vaccine Book

 **A couple science and health journalists whose work on vaccines is actually worth checking out (to be further updated):


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53 Responses to “When reporting with “false balance” strikes in my home state, I take it personally”

  1. Michelle

    I think this journalist definitely needs the kick up the rear that you just gave him. I only took a few semesters of journalism and even I could see the glaring holes in his article. Thank you for doing such a great job deconstructing his irresponsibility!
    And on a similar note, he (and the mother in the article) should read this:

  2. Sheri Wagner

    Thank you for writing this article! I loathe sntivaxers… I don’t know how you interviewed tenpenny & sears without vomiting. I’m not sure who I hate more- tenpenny who is s blatant psycho, or sears who pretends to be the “middle ground” guy by pedaling his made-up schedue & making money by preying on parents’ fears.

    • Tara Haelle

      Tenpenny is no doubt off her rocker. Sears, I think, really believes he’s doing the right thing. He’s just not truly seeking out all the information he should be.

  3. He was so defensive when I put him on the spot about his lack of balance. Ticked me off.

  4. Sue Haelle

    Great job! Definitely needed.

  5. Jeff

    Any journalist who writes on health and science issues that does not acknowledge the politics of the contemporary practice of science is not a “journalist” as much as a PR agent.

    • Tara Haelle

      I’m not sure I follow what your comment means or to whom it is directed. No doubt politics corrupts parts of science, but I fail to see in what context you mean that here.

  6. Ellen

    You are just advocating censorship. Your articles contain multiple examples of failure to do homework, including the ludicrous claim that this all started with Wakefield, totally ignoring IDK, the 1980s? Shot in the Dark which aired on PBS? I suggest you read ‘Pox: An American History’ before you continue to write on this topic. Paul Offit is in the media plenty, fear not!

    • ChrisKid

      What does Paul Offit appearing in the media have to do with journalists having a responsibility to get the story straight and not give credence to a bunch of discredited nonsense? You are correct that the DPT controversy erupted in the 1980s (I’d expect you to know that before you chastise someone else for not knowing), but the Wakefield media circus, aided and abetted by such ‘news’ sources as the Daily Mail, had a much greater impact on the public at large and on vaccination rates.

    • Tara Haelle

      Ellen, I’m very aware of the history. If you click on my links above, you’ll see I even linked to DTP’s history. Why do you think I’m aware of Barbara Loe Fisher’s role? She was very closely involved in the controversies in the 80s, and parents had good reason to be concerned about febrile seizures caused by DTP until more data was available regarding long-term effects. Of course, we are now paying the price in a different way – increasing pertussis rates because the current vaccine wanes much sooner than the whole cell did. And if you think vaccine fears started in the 1980s, it is you who is remiss in your history. Irrational fears about vaccines have been with us since vaccines themselves have been: Sometimes, they are justified (Cutter Incident). I assure you I have done my homework and more. I also would not call it censorship to chastise a reporter for printing inaccurate facts about science. If telling someone not to publish pseudoscience is censorship, then we would have no way whatsoever to distinguish between fact and fantasy.

    • Tara Haelle

      And yes, I was referring to the most recent controversy that is no longer re: Wakefield and the MMR, which contributed to a major upsurge in vaccine fears and a major decline in vaccination rates. This press release describes a study that found exactly that (and there are others):

      And I have no idea what Paul Offit’s media appearances have to do with whether he should be contacted by this reporter or not. If the reporter had no interest in contacting Offit, I gave plenty of other possible individuals to speak to.

  7. Ellen

    I am also a little confused because this seems to be both a twisted resume for you & also a way to name drop the most eccentric & outspoken quasi qualified ProVax cheerleaders like Merck/Murdoch’s Brian Deer & McNookin. It isn’t seeking balance if you briefly speak with people you despise & proceed to immediately mock. It is sorta false.

    • Tara Haelle

      Ellen, I have no interest in promoting my resume. I have an actual website for that. Google it if you want to see it. My point was to show the kind of rigorous research and familiarization with a topic like vaccines that can be necessary to responsibly write about them. Deer and Mnookin are hardly “eccentric.” Both are highly accomplished journalists who act independently and adhere to the profession’s ethics. I don’t know where you get the “speak briefly” thing from, but I spent over an hour speaking with Dr. Sears, an hour and 45 minutes with Louise Habakus Kuo, an hour with Tenpenny and several hours with parents who say their children were vaccine-injured. I mocked none of them when I spoke to them. I was learning who they were and what they believed and why. My understanding regarding the misinformation they spread were formed over time as I spent more time with the research and speaking to more and more people (called, um, doing my homework).

      My list above is also an incomplete one. It’s what I could think of off the top of my head. Again, my point is that I did my homework. This reporter did not.

      And btw, I own a copy of Shot in the Dark.

  8. ChrisKid

    Look up ‘interview’ in the dictionary. I don’t see anything about ‘briefly speaking’, do you? Brian Deer wasn’t advocating for vaccines, and generally isn’t part of that community even now. He was reporting on one story, which then developed further with the GMC hearing and Wakefield’s losing his license.
    Seth Mnookin did serious research before and while writing his book and continues to keep up with developments in the field. I’m not sure what, exactly, you mean by quasi-qualified, but much less research than that seems to qualify as expertise in the antivaccine world.

  9. Jennifer

    Ellen, I think the whole point here was that Tara is not seeking some false idea of balance. Tara is advocating doing your research before you write on the subject, and getting your facts straight. She’s not complaining because pro-vax and anti-vax weren’t given the same amount of play, she’s saying that the facts and realities of the situation weren’t addressed at all. Tara is not advocating censorship, but the very important idea that reporters have a responsibility to the people that read their articles.

    • Tara Haelle

      Thank you, Jennifer. That is spot on. I also told this reporter that I saw no problem with interviewing a parent who does not vaccinate, even if her reasons are based on misinformation, as long as the story is balanced according to what the scientific evidence shows to be true and that the consequences of her irresponsible decision are adequately discussed. Neither of those occurred in this article.

  10. James Fuller

    Tara, thanks for sharing the link to your critique and allowing me to respond.
    First, the history of the genesis of the article. I’m a trained and licensed paramedic in Illinois in addition to being a journalist. I have more than a passing interest in medicine and health. I’ve actually put needles in people and injected them with medicine. They don’t allow you to do that without a firm, basic understanding of how the body works and how pharmaceuticals can both aid and hinder the function of the body’s systems. I’m not a doctor. But two years of medical training didn’t exactly leave me ignorant about medicine either. And you certainly don’t spend 24 hour shifts on an ambulance because you don’t care about helping the sick and the injured.
    I became interested in the vaccine situation in Illinois when the pertussis vaccine became mandatory and yet there were rising numbers of whooping cough in Illinois. Something was clearly amiss. I began to take a look at the vaccines. Yes, I did read quite a bit of research. I know how to do my job. I have a Bachelor of Science in Journalism and a Masters in Public Affairs Reporting.
    It quickly became clear that, despite the avalanche of medical information showing how vaccines have revolutionized health in the developed world, there was a growing community of people who were choosing to forego vaccines in part or in total. I needed to figure out who these people were and why.
    Looking to find local examples of this community of people I started sending out feelers for potential interview candidates. Ironically, it was a person (who has asked not to be named) that has spent quite a bit of time refuting anti-vacc sentiments that suggested I interview Hollie Redinger.
    I eventually tracked Ms. Redinger down and spent a couple hours with her and another anti-vacc parent. That was the basis for the narrative that runs through the two stories, but mostly the main article.
    The fact that the main article was written as a narrative rather than classic inverted pyramid-style news is important. When you’re being descriptive, that takes a lot of words. Lots of words equal lots of sentences and paragraphs. So, yes, there are a good number of paragraphs devoted to building the narrative, telling the story if you will.
    However, it’s also important to evaluate the content of those graphs. Tara critiques my articles for not having citations to medical studies. Well, if you’re paying attention, you’ll note that Ms. Redinger doesn’t refer to any actual science or medical research.
    In contrast, I heavily quote experts from the Illinois Department of Public Health, The Illinois State Board of Education, the American Academy of Pediatrics and an award-winning, long-time school nurse. And all of them talk about the huge benefit of vaccines, the consequences to the public at large or not vaccinating and the selfishness of not considering at-risk populations with compromised immune systems who can’t get vaccinated even if they wanted to.
    Having all that stated over the course of the two articles was the top priority. But, as I’ve said before, you can’t refute a point without first laying out what needs to be refuted. And that’s why the article begins with an anti-vacc narrative. The main story ends by coming back to that narrative because that’s what you have to do when you’re telling a story. You go back to the main character in the end.
    Now, a note on structure. In my first draft, the two stories were one, long story. The second piece, devoted specifically to Illinois’ religious exemption loophole, was originally basically the middle section of the main story. But, the editors decided it was simply to long to print that way. We’re not a magazine after all (unfortunately?).
    In any case, it seems totally unfair to me to not take the two articles together. It’s kind of like leaving during the intermission of a play and telling people the plot had a lot of loose ends.
    Ironically, Tara says she has no problems with the second article. So while I’m a total ignoramus in the first piece, somehow I magically sprouted some medical/science journalism chops by the time we got to the sidebar. Good for me, I guess.
    In print, the stories run side by side. Online, there are links from each article to the other. I wish they were larger and more prominently denoted as sort of “Part 1” and “Part 2”. But they aren’t. Take the two pieces together and recount your paragraphs and percentages if that’s what’s really most important in not having “false balance.”
    I would submit false balance is about something else other than column inches. False balance is presenting a two sides of a story as if they carry the same factual basis. If you read the articles, that’s not what happens. You have two moms who say a lot, but they don’t refer to any actual medicine or science. And you have one family doctor who supports “vaccine freedom”, in other words the ability to make a choice about what substances you put in your body or your child’s body. He also likes alternative scheduling to help him determine which shot causes a reaction if indeed a reaction occurs. That doesn’t sound like bad medicine to me. In fact, being aware of allergies is a big part of paramedic training.
    That said, I’ll refer back to the statement higher up in the story that 98 percent of school-age children are vaccinated in Illinois. It’s clear where the majority of parents stand on the issue. The pro-vacc experts also make it clear where the science and weight of the medical community is at in the articles.
    I disagree with Tara that people want to read a laundry list of numbers and research citations. That’s what medical journals and research papers are for. And, if you’re interested in some numbers, there are also multiple graphics that ran with the stories. Heck, you can even look up your child’s school to see how many of his or her peers are not vaccinated and which vaccines they are missing. Not bad info to have as a parent, right?
    In closing, I would just make this analogy.
    When we were kids, a lot of us had parents that told us Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy all brought us gifts. (Spoiler alert) But when we got older, people told us none of those characters actually exist. Did you need to be referred to a laundry list of scientific studies that proved they didn’t exist? Or did you just listen to the people you knew were the experts and take their word? I suspect you did the latter. Well, folks, the experts flatly and plainly state the case in the stories in favor of vaccines. All you have to do is read the stories without looking to verify your own personal bias against anti-vacc people getting some publicity to recognize that.
    If you still disagree, then at least do it respectfully, like an intelligent adult. Name calling? It’s a really low level of communication. Let’s step it up a notch.
    Thanks for your time. And thanks to everyone who read the stories and sent me feedback, positive or negative.

    • Kelly

      Mr. Fuller, if you understand that anti-vaxers spread misinformation about vaccines, why have you not spent any time countering this false information, both in you original article and in the comments beneath the story?

      I also didn’t realize there was another story or graphics to go with the story because they are hidden amongst the numerous ads on the page. Why didn’t you refer people to these legitimate resources in the article, but dedicated a lot of type to Hollie’s misinformed view?

      You admit that you have two moms that speak a lot but don’t actually say anything valid, yet that is your whole story. Why didn’t you make that comment in your story? That would have gone a long way in presenting a more accurate story.You could have also made that point when you went back to your main character at the end, something like, “So here you have the story of a typical anti-vaxer. Hollie is confused about the risks of the diseases and has no valid reason to reject the recommendations of the experts which are supported by a mountain of scientific studies.” But instead, you let her say, “The info about vaccines is not out there like it should be,” Redinger said. “But to parents who aren’t willing to be open-minded and educate themselves, I say don’t look at my kids and think they may get something that will kill your child. If your vaccines work, then you should have nothing to worry about, right?”

      This is completely false by your own admission. The information is out there. Hollie hasn’t educated herself, and she asks the most ignorant question about vaccines ever. Why didn’t you answer her question? Explain to her why she is mistaken. Instead you left the question hanging unchallenged which makes it appear that she actually has a point.

      Your ignorance about vaccines really makes your article tremendously irresponsible. I think you have failed as a journalist and really should be ashamed of yourself.

      • James Fuller

        Kelly, journalists don’t inject their own views or opinions in articles because that is not objective journalism. As I said, I’m not a doctor. What I personally think, then, is not valid. What you’re suggesting is more appropriate for a an opinion column. That’s for pundits. That’s not what I do. In fact, it would ethically inappropriate for me to take personal stances on the issues I report. Yes, I may have a personal stance, but the job of any journalist is to not let your personal views distort the presentation of facts.
        I agree, the information is out there. And the pro-vacc experts in the two stories present it on numerous fronts. The specific comment by Redinger about “If your vaccines work…” is answered by the American Academy of Pediatrics expert in my story.
        I know the online presentation is lacking in terms of the second part of the story (the part with the AAP expert) not being easy to find. That’s a shortfall I recognize. I can’t do anything about it. That’s the way the tech guys have designed our site to work in terms of links. I don’t like it any more than you.
        Again, I’m not an expert, but I’m not ignorant. And I’m certainly not ashamed about letting people know there is a community of parents in their neighborhoods who are choosing not to vaccinate their children, putting others at risk.

        • Kelly

          But Mr. Fuller, you didn’t limit your article to the presentation facts. You let others express their misinformed opinion and gave more weight to that opinion than the actual facts. That’s why your article sucks.

          Putting a link at the end of your article requires a tech guy? My word processor does it for me. And if you are aware of this shortfall, why not make Hollie’s opinion piece the story that’s hard to find?

          “The specific comment by Redinger about “If your vaccines work…” is answered by the American Academy of Pediatrics expert in my story.” No it’s not. Hollie’s question is the last sentence of your article.

          I also think you are confusing ignorant with stupid. You aren’t stupid, but you certainly do not understand why giving anti-vaxers a platform is an irresponsible decision.

          • James Fuller

            Again, I don’t think it is possible to refute anything without first recognizing its existence. Look at some of the research papers that debunked the false link between vaccines and autism. First they had to cite the false claims. Heck, look at Tara’s criticism of my articles – first she had to tell you what they said. That’s what I did with the anti-vacc narrative.
            Also, and I’ll make this point once again, Ms. Redinger’s quote is not the end of the report. It’s the end of part 1. You’ve got to take both parts together. The AAP is quoted at length in part 2.
            As far as the link, yes, it does take a tech guy. The coding and templates for our website are beyond my technical capacity. Look around, all the web pages for all our stories are laid out in near identical fashion. I would also point out the link is there. It’s not at the bottom. It’s off to the left side of the main article.

          • Kelly

            “Again, I don’t think it is possible to refute anything without first recognizing its existence.”

            Agreed, but the problem with your article is you didn’t actually refute anything. Not only did you not refute it, you upheld it as a legitimate position to have.

            You have also not spent any time in the comments refuting the misinformation posted in response to your article. If Hollie’s question was refuted by the AAP in your article, why not just C&P that part of the article because the person commenting obviously missed it?

            Does it take a tech guy to type: “Look to the left to see the article where all Hollie’s misinformation is refuted in a much more balanced article”? As you might have gathered, I’m finding your excuses to put Hollie front & center and the facts off to the left and hard to find and still thinking this was balanced reporting rather lame.

        • Achsel

          The problem here is they do not want “balanced” reporting at all, what they want is for you to tow the corporate line, the propoganda put out by our federal alphabet agencies, big pharma, and the “never met a vaccine they didn’t like” medical associations. Anyone who prints the opinions of anti-vaccine proponents is condemned immediately even if you refute their stance, even if you give more space to those refuting the anti-vaccine stance. The only way you are allowed to write about this subject without being attacked is to casually mention there are anti-vaccers out there, call them total nutjobs, anti-science, etc. and never allow their actual words into print. Just assure your readers they are nutjobs and you will be praised for your balanced and fair reporting.

          • Anyone unclear about where the “balance” in that article falls need look no further than the above comment. When you’ve elicited this kind of support from this quarter, you know you’ve really, really done something wrong.

        • Tara Haelle

          “Kelly, journalists don’t inject their own views or opinions in articles because that is not objective journalism. As I said, I’m not a doctor. What I personally think, then, is not valid. What you’re suggesting is more appropriate for a an opinion column. That’s for pundits. That’s not what I do. In fact, it would ethically inappropriate for me to take personal stances on the issues I report. Yes, I may have a personal stance, but the job of any journalist is to not let your personal views distort the presentation of facts.”

          The “objectivity” model of journalism left the party a long time ago. It’s about balance, not objectivity. It’s not a personal view that Hollie’s words are off-base. It’s a scientific fact, and it is a health reporter’s responsibility as a journalist to point that out. What you personally think may not be valid. What you personally know from your research IS not only valid but vital to be conveyed. That is the role a science or health journalist takes on when they write. That is what I meant when I said you cannot report on public health or science the way you report on city hall or education. It may be ethically inappropriate for you to take personal stances on whether a law should be passed to require health care workers to get the flu vaccine. It is not ethically inappropriate for you to make it clear that vaccination is safe and effective and that not vaccinating is dangerous. In fact, it is your ethical responsibility to do the latter. The “job of any journalist” is not only for “personal views [not] to distort the presentation of facts” but also for the journalist himself not to inadvertently distort facts through the presentation of the narrative. Yet you have done the latter.

          • James Fuller

            “The “objectivity” model of journalism left the party a long time ago. It’s about balance, not objectivity. It’s not a personal view that Hollie’s words are off-base.”
            Whoa…when you take the objectivity out of journalism, you also take away the credibility. It is flat out bias and unethical for me to say in a news article that I believe Ms. Redinger is a nut whether I believe it or not. My opinion wouldn’t matter anyway because I’m not a doctor, nor do I work with vaccines on a daily basis. That’s why we interview and quote experts. You can do what you suggest in an news-based opinion column. That’s fine. That’s been going on in journalism for a long time. That’s not what a news story does. By definition, they are objective. You present the facts. It is up to the reader to accept the weight of facts or not.
            Columnists and pundits who falsely represent themselves as journalists is a major part of why public trust of the Fourth Estate has slipped so much since the days of Watergate.
            “It is not ethically inappropriate for you to make it clear that vaccination is safe and effective and that not vaccinating is dangerous. In fact, it is your ethical responsibility to do the latter.”
            Again, that was both the intent of the article and what I believe it achieved.
            And it’s not just me or giving the readers to much intellectual credit to discern science-supported facts vs. opinions supported by nothing. Five different editors read both stories before they went to print. The ABC affiliate’s people in Chicago people read it before they asked me to come on TV and talk about it. I don’t know if any of those folks have any medical training in their background, but I wouldn’t be shocked if they didn’t. That said, these articles didn’t happen in a vacuum. Like all credible journalists, my work is checked and reviewed by people who’ve been around a lot longer than myself. That’s part of how you guard against writing over the heads of your audience – you actually have people read the story before it is printed.
            Are narratives powerful? I hope so. Otherwise no one reads the stories all the way through so they can fully digest the facts. That’s not to sell papers. It’s to get people into the story and sticking with it so they get the full story. If I wanted to sell newspapers, I’d transfer to the sales department at a hefty pay increase. That’s not why I’m in this business.
            As far as the power of the graphics, those (and photos) are what people look at first. All the research shows that. I believe it primed readers for what was to come.
            I’m jumping around here to reply to the numerous comments without having to post individually, so I’m sorry if all this comes across as not totally cohesive.
            I’ll close with this. I want to educate readers on the best facts about vaccines and people who choose not to vaccinate. So do people like Tara. We don’t agree on whether or not that was achieved in the package myself and my editors presented. It’s clear that difference of opinion is not going to be resolved. I’m aware of false balance and its potential negative impact. I was aware of it as I wrote and reported by stories on this topic. I’ll be aware of it as I continue to work on the piece I’m doing now on mental health funding. You’ve all made thoughtful points (though some were not as thoughtful as others). If I didn’t care, I wouldn’t have read them all. At this point, I feel everything I can say has been said. I appreciate the feedback. It will all be taken into account both now and in the future.

          • Kelly

            “It is flat out bias and unethical for me to say in a news article that I believe Ms. Redinger is a nut whether I believe it or not.”

            But you didn’t write a news article, you said you wrote a narrative. In the narrative, you were the mouthpiece for Hollie’s opinion and you framed that opinion as legitimate.

            “That’s why we interview and quote experts. ” What is Hollie an expert on, Mr. Fuller? Nothing, so why did the majority of your article quote her?

            ” I’m aware of false balance and its potential negative impact. I was aware of it as I wrote and reported by stories on this topic.” This is what is so frustrating. You claim you are aware of false balance and then went ahead and did it anyway.

        • Tara Haelle

          Also, you are correct that you should not be ashamed of letting readers know there are anti-vaccine advocates out there. But context matters — that is where you have failed.

          And surely you recognize that two sources talking about not using vaccines and two talking about using vaccines is a classic example of how false balance works.

          You seem to think that my problem with your article is that you quoted anti-vaccine advocates or a nonvaccinating parent. That’s not my problem. My problem is how you have allowed her to speak without her inaccuracies being adequately challenged so the reader has the appropriate framing and context to understand the article.

    • One thing though, Mr. Fuller. Anti-vaxxers do not listen to the experts. They do not take their word. They think they are smarter than medical professionals, including you. And every time a journalist points the public toward them, they may win another “convert” using flat-out lies and emotional appeals.

      • James Fuller

        I agree there are some folks that will never be swayed from their personal views unless and until they have a very personal reason to do so. That said, I’m inclined to the glass half-full approach. If you just Google the word “vaccination” some of the top links are to anti-vacc pages. I don’t think ignoring that is the right approach. You have to show what the people who hold those beliefs are about, and then show where the facts are. That was the point of my articles.

        • Kelly

          But your article didn’t do that. You presented the anti-vax view in a favourable light and elevated it even though it’s not based on facts. You didn’t explain why having anti-vax pages at the top of a Google search is a problem. You didn’t address why anti-vaxers refuse expert opinion.

          Nobody is saying ignore them. I have spent a lot of time countering the misinformation underneath the article. What is being said to you is that you don’t present the anti-vax view as legitimate like you did in your article.

        • The glass is always full no matter what. If it’s half-filled with water, the other half is filled with air. But that is neither here nor there. I can’t speak for everyone who has been in the trenches fighting the anti-vax movement. However, I can say that after years of this, many of us understand that the fact that the anti-vax websites are often the first to come up in an internet search is not a good thing. You are aware that vaccine exemption rates are rising in many states. This has been demonstrated to be strongly associated with the proliferation of these frankly idiotic webpages.

          If your point was that despite these websites, most still vaccinate, you are actually missing the point, I’m afraid. Not only are overall exemption rates increasing, but something worse is going on. There are now clusters of vaccine exemptions in specific geographic areas that are growing, and which put every single one of us in danger as the vaccination rates drop below what is necessary for herd immunity.

    • Tara Haelle

      James, thank you not only for reading this but for taking the time to thoughtfully reply. I hope you’ll take the time to read my novel-esque comment here as well.

      “I needed to figure out who these people were and why.”

      James, I do not and have not ever doubted your intentions in this article. I remember you telling me about your medical experience background, and I’ve referred to you on multiple occasions as an experienced journalist. That’s actually part of why I am so frustrated and confused about what you’re not getting here. I used to teach high school and I currently teach journalism at Bradley University, so I’m used to trying different strategies to convey ideas and to encourage people to understand a broader way of thinking of something on their own. Yet, I admit, your inability to grasp what I and others, including many science and health journalists with much more experience and wisdom than me, are trying to point out to you. I say this with all sincerity: If I had the means to do so, I would pay for you right now to attend an NIH workshop on health reporting or a Knight Fellowship in Science Journalism. I’ve spent many, many hours in professional seminars and workshops on public health reporting and science reporting where we discuss the challenges of reporting on issues like vaccination ad nauseum.

      I’m aware of the way a narrative is constructed. I’ve made that clear in my own post. I know you know how a narrative is constructed. What you don’t seem to understand — what I find so frustrating — is that you don’t appear to understand the POWER of your own narrative and how that structure influences the way people think about this issue. It’s not that I’m not giving you enough credit. It’s that I’m giving you a LOT MORE credit than you realize in the extent to which your article can influence others’ decisions NOT to vaccinate their children. If you can reread your story with a clear and open mind and heart and tell me in all sincerity that you think the average reader would read that and walk away with “Vaccines are incredibly important, safe and effective and the best way to protect against disease. That Hollie lady is endangering her children and others’, but I understand her point of view now,” then you are one of two things: incredibly naive or taking your own education, experience and critical thinking skills for granted as you extend them to your readers. Readers *do not have* the medical experience and training you have; hence they don’t come to this story with the same understanding you do. To not realize that — and acknowledge it as you write your piece — is negligent.

      “In any case, it seems totally unfair to me to not take the two articles together.”
      It may seem unfair to you, but that’s the reality of how articles are read on the internet. I know you know that “medium is the message.” Hence you, and your editors, should recognize that and take responsibility for such.

      “Ironically, Tara says she has no problems with the second article. So while I’m a total ignoramus in the first piece, somehow I magically sprouted some medical/science journalism chops by the time we got to the sidebar.” I do not call you an ignoramus, nor do I think it. I do think you have not exercised the responsibility necessary for an article like this on public health. I may be out of line calling you lazy — I don’t know how much work you put into this, though I’m sure it’s a lot — but if it’s not laziness, then it’s truly ignorance about the factors involved in reporting on (not just researching or knowing about) public health.

      “False balance is presenting a two sides of a story as if they carry the same factual basis.”
      Unfortunately that is not always the case. False balance is presenting two sides of a story as though they have equal power and strength — that primarily relies on facts, but you cannot ignore the power and influence of emotional narrative. In fact, emotional narrative is one of a journalist’s most powerful and versatile tools in the toolbox.

      “You have two moms who say a lot, but they don’t refer to any actual medicine or science.”
      Again, you are completely missing the power of narrative and assuming your readers will take the AAP rep and the pediatrician at their word. Decades of research in health communication and science communication refute that belief. THAT is what you need to familiarize yourself with. Did you read the CJR article on the MMR controversy? You need to be familiar with all the science — not just of vaccines but of science communication — and of the history of journalism on public health reporting.

      “And you have one family doctor who supports “vaccine freedom”, in other words the ability to make a choice about what substances you put in your body or your child’s body. He also likes alternative scheduling to help him determine which shot causes a reaction if indeed a reaction occurs. That doesn’t sound like bad medicine to me.”
      Actually, that doctor is practicing bad medicine. “Freedom” is as misused as a term in this debate as it is in political speech. There is plenty of research on spacing out vaccines. Check out this for starters:

      “And, if you’re interested in some numbers, there are also multiple graphics that ran with the stories.”
      I was remiss in not referring to these. They were excellent. Unfortunately, they do not undo the damage of the influence of a good narrative.

      “Did you need to be referred to a laundry list of scientific studies that proved they didn’t exist? Or did you just listen to the people you knew were the experts and take their word? I suspect you did the latter.”
      YET THAT IS THE PROBLEM. If you research vaccine refusal and the trends of the past 15 years, you will see that many people — educated people in higher income brackets — are NOT doing that. They are doing precisely the opposite, and they are doing in part because of beliefs like those Hollie mentions and in part because of articles like yours that don’t make not vaccinating seem so bad. If I sent you a copy of the book Deadly Choices and/or Panic Virus, would you read it? I highly recommend both. I think part of the problem here is that you think others think the way you do. It’s great that you understand the best route is to trust the experts who know their stuff and have spent decades studying it. *THAT IS NOT HOW OTHERS ALWAYS THINK. And it is not how so many who aren’t vaccinating think. They are thinking, “Well, but those experts have skin in the game. I’m going to do the research myself and see if I should vaccinate.” And then we end up with declining vaccination rates, which is where we are in many places. (We were in Washington until they passed a law, as I report in this Nature piece:

      I also do not believe I have name-called you. I have called you irresponsible. So far, I stand by that. The reporting you have shown is irresponsible reporting. Is that because you’re naive or inexperienced or idealistic or what? I don’t know. I suspect it’s lack of information and experience specifically related to science communication, but I’m not sure.

      And you know the irony of all this? I’ve spent so many hours on discussing this article, part of a package in a relatively small market. You’ve probably got more comments on this article than any other in your paper’s history. Why am I spending all this time complaining about an article in a local newspaper when I have my own work I can be doing? I’m not spending all this time because I have a grudge against you. I’m also not doing because I think you’re stupid — then I wouldn’t waste my time. I’m doing it for four reasons: I care about my profession and the way it’s practiced. I know you have the power to influence others’ decisions about their health, which you don’t seem to realize yourself. I care about my son and his risk of vaccine-preventable diseases. And I believe you are smart enough to grasp this if you take a step back, do some research on science communication, read a couple books (Deadly Choices and Panic Virus are where to start), attend a conference and/or workshop or two on public health reporting and science reporting, and then have some humility to re-evaluate what you have written.

    • SBS

      “And you have one family doctor who supports ‘vaccine freedom’, in other words the ability to make a choice about what substances you put in your body or your child’s body.”

      But everybody *already* has this choice, outside of those who have lost custody, so this is merely sloganeering that was allowed to go unexamined. The “freedom” is nothing more or less than the freedom to reap the benefits of the social contract in the form of public education without being bound by the commensurate responsibilities. (In the case of adults, one finds the mind-boggling cases of nurses who object to vaccination. I’ve come across one, at MDC, who admitted to faking her vaccination records and another who was an *oncology* nurse. Let that sink in.)

  11. Adam

    Tara, this is the first time I’ve read your blog (thanks to the Reddit skeptic community for pointing me here), and I just want to say: kick-ass job here.

    I’m a high school science teacher in Minnesota (though I grew up in northern Illinois, not too far from you), and I just want to say ‘thank you’ for having such great science writing on the internet like this, especially on the vaccine issue. I dedicate several days of my class time to teaching the importance of vaccination to my students, and I go after the ant-vaxxers pretty hard, too. I even culminate it by showing (an edited version) Penn & Teller’s final episode of Bullshit! about vaccinations.

    Here’s a YouTube link in case anyone wants to see it. Its fantastic: (Part 1) (Part 2)

    I read this entire article and the comments (including the ones by the author, James Fuller). I get what he’s saying that technically he DID include references to the dangers of not vaccinating and a few quotes from pro-vaccine advocates, but WOW did he do a good job burying them in a load of crap. Finding the truth in his article is like digging sweet corn out of poop. Yes, there’s some in there, but why bother? The overall tone (and opening and closing sections) was decidedly anti-vax, and that’s what people are going to leave with the impression of, which is a disservice to science and medicine.

    • Tara Haelle

      Welcome, Adam, and thank you! I taught high school for six years and currently teach at a university, so teaching is as much in my blood as reporting. I have immense respect for my former colleagues still doing it, and I admit I miss my kids :) I’m very familiar with Penn and Teller’s awesome work, but thank you for posting it here for others. I hope others click on it. It’s great stuff! And as a former English and journalism teacher, I must say your “digging sweet corn out of poop” is one of the best similes I’ve ever read! :)

  12. Mike S

    We did not “evolve from apes.” We and apes both evolved from a common ancestor. It’s a fine point but an important distinction.

  13. Kelly

    In justification of his article, Mr.Fuller explains, “It quickly became clear that, despite the avalanche of medical information showing how vaccines have revolutionized health in the developed world, there was a growing community of people who were choosing to forego vaccines in part or in total. I needed to figure out who these people were and why.”

    I’m quite confused on why Mr. Fuller wouldn’t understand why these people would refuse vaccines if he has the medical background he claims he has. It is quite obvious that these people are misinformed, misunderstand or are using logical fallacies. Some of them are just outright nuts and prefer conspiracy theory and other delusions over reality. I hope after reading the numerous and strong refutations of the anti-vax comments on his article that this would be even more clear to Mr. Fuller, as interviewing Hollie didn’t seem to be enough.

    I’m also confused on why he would need to write a newspaper article to discover the reason instead of just reading the medical literature that he claims to be familiar with. People more educated than him have published numerous studies looking at the mentality of anti-vaxers. But OK, he wanted to interview someone first hand, and he picked Hollie who is a classic anti-vax wing-nut. I’m stunned that he still presented her in a positive, sympathetic light instead of exposing the real crazy behind anti-vaxers.

    I still stand by my comment that I made beneath the article. I think Mr. Fuller is more interested in the by-line and selling newspapers than actually presenting an accurate portrayal of the nature of anti-vaxers.

    • Tara Haelle

      For what it’s worth, James’s story about how and why he started is similar to mine. There is a reason I listened to Dr. Tenpenny on the phone for an hour. There is a reason I interviewed Louise Habakus Kuo for nearly two hours and bought her book Vaccine Epidemic. There is a reason I spent an hour with Dr. Bob Sears. There is a reason I interviewed parents who said their children were vaccine-injured. There is a reason I drove three hours to view the screening of The Greater Good and sat through a panel discussion with Barbara Loe Fisher, Dawn Richardson, Larry Pavlevsky and Bob Sears. Even long after I understood better the anti-vaccine community and advocacy, while reporting my Nature piece, I listened with compassion on the phone to a woman in Connecticut tell me tearfully and fearfully about her child, who she believed was vaccine-injured. There is nothing with this curiosity and I agree it is essential to speak to anti-vaccine advocates and understand them. But there is a huge difference between learning about this community and presenting their views as valid.

      • Tara Haelle

        Also, at the time that I started and spoke to those individuals, I still did not have an opinion on vaccines. I was still learning. I did not come from a medical or a research background at the time. I was digging in because I wanted to know.

  14. SBS

    “‘Any vaccine that is manufactured is going to have a batch that is produced that, for whatever reason, ends up being more or less effective than the rest of the doses.’ This statement is scientifically false and has no data to back it up. It is irresponsible fear-mongering on the part of the pediatrician and the journalist.”

    This is very, very close to being a dog whistle for the antivax “hot lot” ploy (e.g.,, but if one isn’t familiar with the antivax playbook, it passes as a bland remark. Given that Rardin has a gig on the side at a chiropractic/naturopathic outfit, one might wonder whether his characterization of himself as being accepting of nonvaccinating parents (the article also fails to note that the AAP explicitly discourages “firing” such patients) and for “vaccine freedom” has been softened more than a little for public consumption.

    • Tara Haelle

      It took me a LONG time of reading, researching and talking with anti-vaccine advocates to learn all the gambits and “key phrases.” You’re spot on (and I didn’t even know Rardin had the side gig). Again, being experienced in reporting on vaccines would have made this a tip-off for Fuller. He was inadvertently played, I think, by a doctor who knew he would feel an obligation to journalistic “objectivity” that is handled differently (and more appropriately) in science and health reporting.

  15. In my opinion Tara Haelle’s post is brilliant. I am an epidemiologist and I’m sick and tired of seeing the press give the appearance of equal weight to the anti-vax movement. They don’t deserve it. Their opinions are ill-informed and dangerous. If we wanted to be “equal” in the press, stories could focus instead on the research that is going on to study who anti-vaxxers are and why they are so dedicated to believing in nonsense. A story could be done on parents who refused vaccination and now regret it. There are a thousand ways to bring this into the public eye without lending any credence whatsoever to the anti-vaccination movement. But, you know, I’m guessing that’s not quite as sexy and stuff.

    • Tara Haelle

      Hey there, Skewed. I found your blog yesterday when it was posted in a Facebook group. I know you’re keeping a low profile, but if you’re interested in discussing a story on this further, shoot me an email and we’ll talk. I’d love to write a story like what you describe if I can find the right publication for it.

    • Kelly

      “There are a thousand ways to bring this into the public eye without lending any credence whatsoever to the anti-vaccination movement. But, you know, I’m guessing that’s not quite as sexy and stuff.”

      I think you absolutely nailed it with that comment, SD. No like button so I’ll just have to leave a comment. All for the best though, because I can then tell you that I would have liked it 100X.

      • Sia

        They keep claiming they are conscientious objectors. Take them at their word. Conscientious objectors were ridiculed and faced otracastizion for their choices.

  16. […] issue is not covered responsibly. The last time I critiqued such a journalist, it was because of his false balance. This time, I feel obligated to point out the significant flaws in a story whose message, on its […]

  17. […] who follow my work know my deep concerns with false balance in the media on scientific issues. Therefore, I wrote the following response […]

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