People are mad at Brian Deer. Really mad. His work uncovered a number of facts behind Andrew Wakefield’s research and business interests. These facts, these actions by Mr. Wakefield, led to many of the problems Mr. Wakefield has suffered in recent years. It is understandable that people are mad at Brian Deer. Andrew Wakefield is rather important to the groups who believe that vaccines caused an epidemic of autism. Mr. Wakefield is the researcher who took the parent’s hypothesis and put it into a prestigious medical journal. Mr. Wakefield has good credentials, and demeanor which makes for excellent TV footage. It is difficult to listen to him and think, “here is a man who lied to the world, caused a fear of the MMR vaccine and vaccines in general, and hid not only his faulty research, but other ethical lapses and shortcuts taken along the way”.
Difficult, but not impossible. The U.K.’s General Medical Council decided that contrary to what Mr. Wakefield had to say in his defense, he had misrepresented his work, he had taken many ethical shortcuts. While the GMC wasn’t interested in the vaccine fears promoted by the faulty, even fraudulent research, the GMC did find Mr. Wakefield guilty of ethics violations, research misconduct and dishonesty and had him struck off the U.K.’s medical register.
And, yes, it was the facts that led to the downfall of Mr. Wakefield. But, that doesn’t shield the messenger. In this case, Mr. Deer. Well, he was more than the messenger. He uncovered the facts as well as presented them.
One thing Mr. Wakefield’s supporters are mad about is the fact that Mr. Deer interviewed one parent using a pseudonym. He presented himself as “Brian Lawrence”, not “Brian Deer”. This is not news, having been in the press for at least 7 years. Much more to the point, it isn’t even a controversy, as I’ll show below. But, it is blog fodder. Apparently enough for Dan Olmsted of the Age of Autism to put out 3, count them 3, articles on the subject.
Since AoA have discussed Mr. Wakefield and Mr. Deer on their blog, it is not surprising that people came here looking to see if there would be a response to Mr. Olmsted’s pieces. There was a time when I read the Age of Autism blog, so perhaps, just perhaps, I was aware of the articles. In a comment on my piece, My comment to the IACC, I got the following
Jim Thompson, frequent commenter here, wrote:
It seems that your interests parallel those on AoA with a major exception. Have you read this?
See “I was visited yesterday, Friday 28th November 2003 by Brian Lawrence…” at http://www.ageofautism.com/201…..dical.html
I used to get a lot of comments like that. Thread-jacking comments pointing me to one blog or another where some heated discussion was supposedly going on. I pulled the comment this time. In this case I felt it justified. The article it was attached to had nothing to do with the subject of the comment. In fact, to be blunt, I found it both ironic and insulting that the comment was attached to that piece.
Yes, my piece asking for research into better medical care for autistics is so like rehashing the “Brian Deer used a pseudonym” argument. If anything, this serves to show the differences between the Age of Autism and Left Brain/Right Brain. Differences which are becoming more pronounced with time. I’m pushing for a better future. They are rehashing their failures of the past.
Believe me, when I first heard that Brian Deer used a pseudonym in order to obtain an interview, I looked into the question. I asked a simple question: can a journalist lie to a source and if so, when?
The answer is, yes, a journalist can lie. As to when: there are two criteria that must be met. First, there must be a pressing need for the public to obtain the information. Second, the information is not expected to be obtainable by straightforward means.
Let’s consider the news investigation into Mr. Wakefield’s research. It is clear that there was a pressing need for the public to know whether the details were being accurately presented. Mr. Wakefield’s research was creating a fear of vaccines in general, and the MMR in specific. The vaccination rates were dropping to dangerously low levels, presenting a public health hazard. An investigation into the research, even if it required suberterfuge, was warranted, as long as the second criterion was met: there must be a valid expectation that the information would be obtainable by straightforward means.
OK, so point one is met. Let’s look at point two. Mr. Olmsted gives us insight into that question himself:
Deer had written a number of critical articles about parents’ claims of vaccine injury, and if he gave his real name, he doubtless feared, Child 2’s mother would not agree to talk to him. Once she checked his blog, she would be more likely to kick him out of the family home than sit still for what turned into a six-hour inquisition.
Mr. Deer is also described by Mr. Olmsted as being considered at the time of the interview as “a journalist notoriously hostile to people who claimed that vaccines had injured their children. ”
Clearly, the second point is met as well: the information was not expected to be obtainable by straightforward means
Mr. Olmsted is, no doubt, quite aware of the ethics of such methods. The Society of Professional Journalists have the following rules (emphasis added):
— Test the accuracy of information from all sources and exercise care to avoid inadvertent error. Deliberate distortion is never permissible.
— Diligently seek out subjects of news stories to give them the opportunity to respond to allegations of wrongdoing.
— Identify sources whenever feasible. The public is entitled to as much information as possible on sources’ reliability.
— Always question sources’ motives before promising anonymity. Clarify conditions attached to any promise made in exchange for information. Keep promises.
— Make certain that headlines, news teases and promotional material, photos, video, audio, graphics, sound bites and quotations do not misrepresent. They should not oversimplify or highlight incidents out of context.
— Never distort the content of news photos or video. Image enhancement for technical clarity is always permissible. Label montages and photo illustrations.
— Avoid misleading re-enactments or staged news events. If re-enactment is necessary to tell a story, label it.
— Avoid undercover or other surreptitious methods of gathering information except when traditional open methods will not yield information vital to the public. Use of such methods should be explained as part of the story
— Never plagiarize.
— Tell the story of the diversity and magnitude of the human experience boldly, even when it is unpopular to do so.
— Examine their own cultural values and avoid imposing those values on others.
— Avoid stereotyping by race, gender, age, religion, ethnicity, geography, sexual orientation, disability, physical appearance or social status.
— Support the open exchange of views, even views they find repugnant.
— Give voice to the voiceless; official and unofficial sources of information can be equally valid.
— Distinguish between advocacy and news reporting. Analysis and commentary should be labeled and not misrepresent fact or context.
— Distinguish news from advertising and shun hybrids that blur the lines between the two.
— Recognize a special obligation to ensure that the public’s business is conducted in the open and that government records are open to inspection.
As an aside: consider the rules above and Mr. Olmsted’s reporting on autism. “Distinguish between advocacy and news reporting”. “Test the accuracy of information from all sources and exercise care to avoid inadvertent error. Deliberate distortion is never permissible.” and more…
Back to the question of whether it is permissible to use “surreptitious methods of gathering information” in obtaining a story. Aside from these being the published rules of the Society of Professional Journalists, Mr. Olmsted is likely well aware of the method. Back when he was at UPE, Mr. Olmted’s journalism partner on what may have been his real intro into medical news reporting (a series on Lariam) was a gentleman named Mark Benjamin. Mr. Olmsted included Mr. Benjamin in the dedication of his book, “The Age of Autism”.
I believe that this is the same Mark Benjamin who went on to write a series for Salon.com called “Getting straight with God“, a “four-part investigation into the Christian netherworld of “reparative therapy,” a disputed practice to convert gays and lesbians into heterosexuals. ”
How did Mark Benjamin, a straight man, obtain the information he needed for the story? ” I told Harley I was gay, although I am straight and married. I used a fake name. ”
When I arrived in Levy’s office, I was asked to fill out roughly 15 pages of questions about myself and my family. Mostly the questions centered on how I got along with my folks. In a section about my problems, I wrote “possible homosexuality.” The fact is, I’m straight, I’m married to a woman, and I have a 3-year-old daughter and a son due in October. I wrote on the form that that I was married with a kid. But I lied and said I was also living a secret life, that I harbored homosexual urges.
This is why I’m calling this out as a manufactured controversy. Brian Deer interviewed someone using a pseudonym. He misrepresented himself. It happens in journalism. It not only happens, it is clearly allowed under specific circumstances. As a journalist, a journalist whose colleagues have used the same techniques, Mr. Olmsted should be quite aware of this.