In The Politics of Autism, I analyze the discredited notion that vaccines cause autism. This bogus idea can hurt people by allowing diseases to spread. And among those diseases could be COVID-19.
Antivaxxers are sometimes violent, often abusive, and always wrong. A leading anti-vaxxer is presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. He has repeatedly compared vaccine mandates to the Holocaust. Rolling Stone and Salon retracted an RFK article linking vaccines to autism.
At STAT, Leah Russin makes suggestions for covering antivaxxers such as RFK Jr.
Avoid false balance. Treat anti-vaccine disinformation like flat-Earth manifestos. Get a few quotes from public health experts refuting the candidate’s statements and move on. Don’t elevate the falsehoods by also quoting someone else who subscribes to them. Where science is uncertain, journalists should rely on experts to explain the risks and unknowns, as well as the risk of not adopting a public health measure.
Take care with headlines. Recitations of falsehoods — whether or not they pull in the eyeballs — are a dangerous way of perpetuating misinformation. We all know that many people won’t actually read the article, so they only absorb the headline. Careful coverage may not get as many clicks, but it should ensure the public comes away with a full understanding of both the candidate and the science. A good headline will highlight the falsehood, like this one, while a bad headline, like this one, baldly repeats the false claim, leaving the article to do the harder work of context and correction.
Only allow debates on policy. For example, we can reasonably debate whether vaccines should be required for school or public health workers, what types of exemptions should be available, and how rigorously they should be enforced. It is appropriate to consider the relative importance of privacy, liberty, and public health as part of a policy discussion on when and where vaccines should be required or merely encouraged. But there should be no debate about what the evidence about vaccines’ safety and effectiveness actually shows. There is no “both sides” on the science.