Researchers at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health found that around one in three vaccine-related stories published between 1995 and 2005 painted vaccination in a bad light, often suggesting that vaccines are unsafe.
The study, which focussed on US publications, found spikes in the number of newspaper articles about rotavirus in 1999 and regarding smallpox vaccines in 2002 and 2003 – coinciding with public policy announcements by regulators and manufacturers.
The measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine was also prominent in media coverage, the bulk of which concerned vaccine safety concerns and vaccine policy.
The researchers looked at 1,200 articles over a ten year period and believe this kind of media monitoring could be used to help craft vaccine-safety messages in future. Fewer than one in ten articles provided additional resource information for parents, according to the study which highlights the influence of the media in influencing vaccination decisions.
“The association between parents’ self-reports of receiving information from the media and school exemptions suggests the potential for the media to influence parents’ opinions about the safety of vaccines and contribute to increasing parents’ uncertainty about the safety of vaccines,” the researchers wrote.
“Future research should focus on determining how parents interpret media messages about immunization and if vaccine-safety reporting from the news media affects parental vaccine knowledge, attitudes and behaviours.”
However, given that the study looked at publications over a ten-year period ending in 2005, it’s worth asking whether a more up-to-date media sample would produce a different result. Anecdotally, it would appear that coverage of immunisation is growing a little more sympathetic – not least because of recent measles and polio outbreaks.
Dr Paul Offit, a paediatrician and high-profile vaccine advocate, told Vaccines Today in a recent interview that the . He believes the media have woken up to the impact of running articles which stoke public fear in immunisation.
“The media is feeling burned by how it dealt with the MMR controversy because of the real impact that story is having on children now. Take the LA Times for example: ten years ago they had a journalist who wrote weekly articles on the harm of vaccines. Just about every week without fail. Now he has been replaced and you’re seeing articles which are much more on the side of science.
“In the past decade, the New York Times Sunday magazine ran articles on vaccines and autism which would never be published today. People are now writing responsible. The mainstream media has backed off. Even entertainment television is mindful of what happened with measles, for example,” Dr Offit said.
The balance fallacy
What this study does show is that media coverage tends to over-represent anti-vaccine voices. This can happen either in the interest of generating controversy and attracting readers, or simply in an honest – but misguided – effort to provide balance.
It’s part of the ‘balance’ fallacy that people like Offit and author Seth Mnookin have highlighted. Mnookin that reporters covering issues like vaccine safety or global warming are inclined to present the debate as though expert opinion were evenly split – even when the overwhelming majority of scientists are of a common view.
“One problem is the institutional inability to understand scientific issues involved in vaccines; when you’re on deadline and you’ve got an editor putting pressure on, the easy thing to do is just get a quote from both sides,” Mnookin said.
Media monitoring 2.0
The new study by Johns Hopkins would be worth repeating regularly to track shifts in the messages appearing in traditional media. However, this kind of content analysis is falling out of fashion as media evolve.
The trouble with waiting several years to conduct this kind of review is that its power to inform communication strategies is limited. Of more pertinent use might be real-time monitoring of the conversations taking place through social media channels like Twitter. Not only would this improve understanding of public sentiment, it offers a chance to engage and react.