To investigate how balanced presentations of the autism-vaccine controversy influence judgments of vaccine risk, we randomly assigned 327 participants to news articles that presented balanced claims both for and against an autism-vaccine link, antilink claims only, prolink claims only, or unrelated information. Readers in the balanced condition were less certain that vaccines did not cause autism and more likely to believe experts were divided on the issue. The relationship between exposure to balanced coverage and certainty was mediated by the belief that medical experts are divided about a potential autism-vaccine link. We discuss theoretical and practical implications of these findings.The conclusion:
Despite the limitations and need for further research, this study demonstrates that the ways in which journalists present evidence in support of risk viewpoints can influence peoples’ risk-related certainty. Falsely balancing risk perspectives can be troubling, as it can heighten readers’ uncertainty perceptions around certain science. For health officials, this fact can be another obstacle to effectively communicating health risk to the public for which alternative methods of communication should be considered. For journalists, it might open up important discussions on the balance norm in terms of addressing its advantages and disadvantages in providing the public with health risk information.Brooke Weberling McKeever, "News Framing of Autism: Understanding Media Advocacy and the Combating Autism Act," Science Communication 35 (April 2013): 213-240.
This study explores agenda setting, framing, and the concepts of media advocacy and mobilizing information through content analysis of The New York Times and The Washington Post news coverage of autism from 1996 to 2006, the year the Combating Autism Act was passed. Findings revealed that science frames decreased over time, while policy frames increased. Medical, government, family, and nonprofit sources were most common in news coverage. Solutions were mentioned more frequently than causes; however, mobilizing information was limited. Theoretical implications and practical applications are discussed.From the conclusion:
The sources included in autism news coverage seem appropriate when one considers the issue. Science/medical and government sources are often deemed “experts” by the media and are therefore sought after for inclusion in health news. Sources that provide information freely and/or frequently in a format that audiences might find easily digestible are especially likely to be included in media coverage about scientific topics (Conrad, 1999; Len-Ríos et al., 2009; Tanner & Friedman, 2011). Additionally, many families were included as sources in news coverage of autism. As Boyce (2006) noted, families could be considered the real “experts” when it comes to an issue such as autism, and it seems that at least some U.S. newspaper reporters saw them as such and included them in coverage accordingly. However, individuals with autism, who could also be considered experts, were included in only 14% of articles; these are some of the “ordinary voices” that Boyce (2006) noted seem to be missing in autism news coverage. While nonprofit organizations were included in a fairly substantial proportion of articles (35%), they made up only 11% of total sources. This could reflect the limited number of autism nonprofits that existed or made themselves known to media at the time, which could be evidence of the need or opportunity for greater media advocacy efforts on the part of nonprofit organizations. Alternatively, there could be reluctance on the part of journalists to rely on nonprofit organizations as sources for an issue such as autism. The spike in nonprofit sources included in news coverage in 1998-1999 coincides with media coverage of the Wakefield et al. (1998) study and controversy surrounding the autismvaccine link. It could be that nonprofit organizations became more willing to speak with media during this time, while government and science/medical responses may have been lacking as the controversy emerged and was sorted out, as one recent article suggested (Holton et al., 2012).
Boyce, T. (2006). Journalism and expertise. Journalism Studies, 7, 889-906.
Holton, A., Weberling, B., Clarke, C. E., & Smith, M. J. (2012). The blame frame: Media attribution of culpability about the MMR-autism vaccination scare. Health Communication. Advance online publication.