What do you get when you cross a DJ, an actress and a virologist? A bad joke.
Until the end, it seemed as though it would turn out to be a happy-ending story; a demonstration of how new social networks, renowned for spreading misinformation, can also correct it when used properly.
But the unfortunately predictable finale revealed the opposite: counteracting false ideas about vaccines is no easy task. It will take time, a great deal of patience, communication skills and a good, coordinated strategy too.
The protagonist of this story is Roberto Burioni, an Italian virologist, professor at the Vita-Salute University San Raffaele in Milan. In recent months, the researcher became very popular at national level for his Facebook posts about vaccines.
With evidence-based, plain and simple arguments, he answers all the doubts families can raise about the issue. In light of his new-found fame, he was invited to appear on a TV talk shows on the national state channel RAI 2. The show was called Virus (not a scientific programme, despite its name) and is led by a journalist named Nicola Porro.
“I thought I would have a chance to address a larger audience with good information about vaccines,” he says. On the contrary, he was given only few minutes through a video link to Milan to rebut the hoaxes presented in the main TV studio by two questionable experts.
One was Red Ronnie, a DJ, who repeated the false and fraudulent connection between vaccines and autism, in addition to many other persistent myths.
The other, even quirkier, was Eleonora Brigliadori, a former Italian actress, now dedicated to alternative medicines. She advocates against cancer therapies and supports fanciful theories, such as the idea that drinking urine is healthy and that the growing number of babies born with microcephaly in South America is not due to zika virus, but to reincarnation of Spanish conquerors in these unfortunate newborns.
At the end of the programme, the public could not have come away with an accurate impression, and the only expert there, Roberto Burioni, seemed to represent a minority. It was even implied that his motivations were driven by conflicts of interest with the pharma industry.
“I could not accept this,” declares Burioni, who denounced Red Ronnie for insinuating this. The following day, he wrote a powerful new post on his Facebook page, giving his version of the facts. This was a huge success. While the TV show had been viewed by something more than 1,200,000 people, Burioni’s post was shared by 46,000 persons and read by more than 5 million in one day.
Faced with protesting voices coming from experts, science journalists, scientific societies and everyday citizens, rising up on Facebook and Twitter and addressing the Minister of Health, the Italian TV authorities intervened. It was stated that the programme would not be allowed to continue next season, after the summer break.
The idea that anyone could have his/her voice heard on any subject, even when thousands of lives are at stake, seemed to have been overcome. There are issues that are not a matter of free thought, on which all opinions have the same weight. This is simply because they are not just ideas, but facts. The safety of vaccines is a fact, as well as their importance for preventing dangerous diseases.
Don’t count your chickens before they’ve hatched, though. Burioni was invited again to participate on the programme the following week. “I thought that it was a remedial action and that the journalist had understood his mistake,” he says. Nothing of the sort. The expert was faced again by a lawyer who has made a business out of compensation lawsuits, parents convinced that their children were hurt by vaccines and an old philosopher – presented as an example of how even educated academics can be sceptical towards vaccines – who claimed that anyone is entitled to speak on the issue.
What is the moral of the story, then? Looking on the bright side, something is certainly moving. A growing number of people are now aware of the importance of vaccines and, more generally, of the risk of false balance in media. They are ready to raise their voices, especially when poor communication creates risks for public health.
However, we are a long way from getting honest and responsible information by the media, where the same non-specialist journalists are allowed to deal with health and science as they do with politics.
Maybe both print and broadcast journalists all over the world should follow the same courses recommended by BBC in 2014, which invited its staff to “stop giving undue attention to marginal opinions”.
While cranks can give a touch of colour to a sports programme, the same cannot be said when talking about science and health. This misinformation can put lives at risk. On these topics, a strong sense of responsibility from everyone is required.
Roberta Villa, Zadig, on behalf of ASSET project