Brian Deer, the investigative journalist whose work highlighted fraud by Andrew Wakefield, said the media environment has changed considerably since the now-debunked link between MMR and measles first spread in the late 1990s.
Deer, who also investigated controversies over other vaccines in the 1980s, said the influence of big newspapers and television channels has been diluted.
“During the DTP controversy, big media would shout ‘scare’ and that was that. They decided the terms of the debate. We’re not in that environment anymore. There is now a marketplace of people searching desperately for information. In some cases they find websites which sound official but have questionable merit. Things have changed and this must be addressed,” he told a meeting hosted by the Fondation Merieux which examined public engagement with vaccination policy.
Deer has twice won British Press Awards for his investigation into false claims by Andrew Wakefield that the MMR vaccine was connected with the onset of autism. He said the story behind the MMR scare was about power and vested interests, making it fertile ground for investigative journalism.
However, Deer acknowledged that alarmist narratives about vaccination were also appealing to newspapers because they are easy to produce: they are cheap, they stoke primal fears and their stories typically feature sympathetic figures such as children and concerned parents.
There will, he added, be more concerns about vaccination – as vaccination scepticism is as old as immunisation and news media works in cycles – but the changing media landscape offers an opportunity for a new kind of conversation.
Read: Vaccines do not cause autism
Shifting the mindset
He said tools like Twitter had sparked a communications revolution. “If you believe that information is power. And if you believe that the Internet is the ultimate source of information. The logical conclusion is that the Internet is power; the power to shape perceptions. Technology is playing an increasingly critical role in the way we think.”
Weiss said that the people who understood this “first and best” were non-governmental organisations (NGOs) who embraced social media, not least because it is so cost-effective.
“They became very good at using new media and figured out that, in fact, it works even better than traditional communications. It gets the message out but it also gets people involved. Now they have become highly professional at moving stories and perceptions on critical issues,” he said.
‘H1N1’ was a game-changer
Online discussion about the H1N1 pandemic dominated social media channels in 2009 and this phenomenon has had a profound impact on perceptions of all immunisation programmes. Weiss said public health authorities, academics and companies interested in public health should radically reassess their online communication strategies.
One of the strengths of anti-vaccine campaigners, he said, is that “you see people, faces”. Parents with genuine questions about immunisation are inclined to relate more readily to real people rather than scientific statements issued by faceless institutions.
“We need a new mindset based on real openness and real transparency. Once you go online and start this discussion there’s no stopping. Everyone who is serious about moving the needle on this issue needs to start learning and try different things,” said Weiss.
(See Philip Weiss’ presentation here)
From broadcast to engagement
Clare Matterson, Director, Medical Humanities & Engagement at the Wellcome Trust, told the meeting that science in general had suffered a “crisis of trust”.
In the past decade, she said, scientists and health advocates have moved away from the idea that it was sufficient to fire information at the public and expect it to stick. “Engagement” is the watchword for those interested in communicating on scientific subjects, she said.
This can be done online or through innovative forums such as café scientifique, the Science Media Centre in the UK, Dublin’s Science Gallery, and the Wellcome Trust-sponsored ‘I’m a scientist, get me out of here’ competition.
“The last 10 years has been a time of great experimentation in public engagement with science. We believe engagement is about conversations rather than transmission,” she said.
Read: What can social media tell us about vaccination rates?
Read: Twitter: the new flu-tracking tool
Read Tweets from the Fondation Meriux conference using the #vaxpolicy hashtag