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Public Editor Sylvia Stead responds to readers and gives a behind-the-scenes look

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(Valentin Flauraud/Reuters)
(Valentin Flauraud/Reuters)

Public editor: Stories on vaccination aren’t propaganda Add to ...

I received an e-mail from a reader who said he always believed The Globe and Mail has professional standards and is very objective in its news coverage.

“I have to admit though, as a person with no academic or professional background associated with vaccination, I am surprised at the one-dimensional reporting on this topic. It feels like the paper is engaged in an act of public duty propaganda-style. I find it difficult to believe that the individuals belonging to the ‘anti-vaxxer’ community have no credible person(s) who could intelligently and responsibly relate the complex rationale that is the basis for their position on this issue,” he wrote.

The reader is correct that news stories should be fair and balanced, but if The Globe were to include someone “credible” from the anti-vaxxer community, that would be false balance.

False balance is when journalists twist themselves into a knot to try to balance scientific and expert views with someone whose views are not fact-based, expert or scientific. Would you even report a story about whether the Earth is flat or round and quote some marginal conspiracy theory types arguing that it can’t be round? No. Would you publish anything about whether the moon landing was real and give equivalency to the views of those who believe it was a hoax? Again, no.

The same is true for the anti-vaccine movement. There is no equivalency between the scientific evidence of many studies and perhaps an actress whose beliefs are based on – well, who knows really.

False balance is not only poor journalism, it can harm the readers’ understanding because it suggests there is a balance between the views. In politics, for example, it is important and responsible to offer fair weight to different parties’ views. It is not responsible to offer equal weight to science versus flimsy beliefs.

Here is a toolkit for journalists on the issue of false balance and vaccines. In it, the Voices for Vaccines group argues that “focusing on the social controversy of vaccines is tantalizing, but it does not present the public with an accurate understanding of vaccines. Reporting on science is different from reporting on politics, because in science, the facts are reproducible and verifiable. Underplaying the science to emphasize the social controversy can mislead parents about vaccines, leading to decisions that are not based on correct facts and accurate risk-assessment.”

The reader is correct that The Globe and Mail has “engaged in an act of public duty” although the reader is wrong in my view to call it propaganda.

In the news stories and also the columns, there is balance in the reporting – although not a pro- and anti-vaxxer view. Instead, it is responsible writing where the writers do not say vaccination is risk-free. What the writers do argue is that the benefits far outweigh the risks. That is a balanced point of view.

Both The Globe’s editorial board and health columnist Andre Picard have written forceful opinions in favour of vaccines. That is the job of both the editorial board and the columnist: to argue a point of view and argue it strongly.

As well, one of The Globe’s health writers, Carly Weeks, wrote this week on concerns about “homeopathic vaccines.”

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Follow on Twitter: @SylviaStead

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