Five things not to do if you must write up an Andrew Wakefield press release

I wasn’t the only person to be pretty disappointed in the Independent’s decision to give a platform this weekend to Andrew Wakefield’s ludicrous and self-serving claim that the Swansea measles epidemic is not his fault, but the Government’s.

Martin Robbins and Phil Plait have already written excellently about this, so I don’t have to at length. But I thought I’d add a few thoughts on the saga from my own experience as a science journalist.

When I worked at The Times, I used to judge myself as much by what I kept out of the paper as by what I got into it. This would have been one I would have been proud to see land on the spike.

Andrew Wakefield attempting to justify himself and blame the Government for the outcome of his own scaremongering is not news. The content of a Wakefield press release is about as illuminating as the things people shout at cars. It is ok to ignore him. That is what he is desperate for you not to do.

That said, I can see how it might be tempting to write this one up — Wakefield’s claim is pretty brazen, and that does have a certain news value. But if you absolutely must write up his press release, here are five things you would certainly want to avoid:

1. Don’t splash on it. Or put it on the front page for that matter. Prominence matters, and rather suggests that you, the editor, think that the person you’re writing about is making a point that deserves to be heard, even if you disagree with it. The proper place for a story like this is inside the book.

2. Don’t pick the headline he’d have picked. “MMR scare doctor Andrew Wakefield breaks his silence: Measles outbreak in Wales proves I was right” doesn’t cut it. “Outrage over struck-off MMR scare doctor’s latest bizarre and dangerous claim” just might.

3. Don’t wait until paragraph 15 — paragraph 15! — before introducing a critic who can explain why Wakefield is wrong. Yes, the quotes to that effect are there. But most readers won’t get to them, and for those who do, the placement suggests a lack of importance.

4. Don’t run the whole Wakefield press release as if it were a commissioned op-ed. How to give the guy’s scaremongering the imprimatur of a respectable newspaper.

5. Don’t forget that the story is about the chutzpah of the man, not about the substance of his claim. Write the whole thing as a critique. This has to start in the intro, and continue to thread through the piece. Don’t even allow the slightest possibility that the odd paragraph could be quoted out of context. If you do, it will be.

The Indy usually covers health and science very well, and wasn’t one of the offenders during the original media debacle over MMR. It’s a shame that it managed to score 0 out of 5 this time.

About markgfh

Mark Henderson is Head of Communications at the Wellcome Trust, a global charitable foundation dedicated to achieving extraordinary improvements in human and animal health by supporting the brightest minds in biomedical research and the medical humanities. The Geek Manifesto contains his personal views, not those of the Wellcome Trust. Before joining the Trust in January 2012, Mark was Science Editor of The Times, where he built a reputation as one of Britain's foremost science journalists and commentators. Mark's first book, 50 Genetics Ideas You Really Need to Know, was published in 2009 by Quercus
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41 Responses to Five things not to do if you must write up an Andrew Wakefield press release

  1. Brian Deer says:

    This was my complaint to the paper:

    You published an article by the former doctor Andrew Wakefield and distributed it to unquantifiable numbers of vulnerable people and others, via the internet, knowing that it was false.

    It’s no defence or remedy to claim that, at another web page, you stated that the article was false. You knew that the false article would be linked to and disseminated as the editorial content of your newspaper, giving it spurious credibility and the authority of your imprint.

    You also knew that many, and likely most, of those to whom the false article would be disseminated – potentially over the course of many years – would never read your denials of its truth.

    But you didn’t care. You merely wished to fill out a spread of your print edition with free editorial copy, without the slightest interest in the consequences, or your duties as journalists.

    This behaviour, evidently sanctioned at a senior level, was a breach of the Press Complaints Commission code of conduct, your own professed standards and the fundamental principles of journalism.

    • Jake Crosby says:

      And yet, neither The Independent’s editorial, the vaccine lobby’s go-to “expert” quoted by the newspaper, the Department of Health or “journalists,” including Brian Deer, who criticized The Independent for not censoring it, have managed to refute anything in Dr. Wakefield’s piece.

      And yes, Brian Deer, Dr. Wakefield is still a doctor. You are not.

      Your final sentence describes the behavior of no one more perfectly than that of your own:

      “This behaviour, evidently sanctioned at a senior level, was a breach of the Press Complaints Commission code of conduct, your own professed standards and the fundamental principles of journalism.”

  2. Jake Crosby says:

    Translation from newspeak of pharma-funded front group “Association of British Science Writers” member:

    How to effectively censor and marginalize Dr. Andrew Wakefield’s evisceration of vaccine lobby propaganda.

    1. Bury it.
    2. Trash it.
    3. Give our lobby’s go-to “expert” more play.
    4. Butcher it.
    5. Dismiss it.

    And that’s how you score a 5 out of 5 as a vaccine lobby propagandist.

    • Squirrel says:

      Jane is just another thinly disguised conspiracy theorist. Not very good at reading scientific research are you, Jane? The fact is you are wrong. Wakefield was wrong and he knew it but continued to peddle his lies for his own gain. Brian Deer was right and we owe him gratitude. Not only are now seeing the damage caused by Wakefield’s influence on vulnerable parents, but each day that goes by we have more evidence that there is no link between autism and vaccines, and more evidence of the genetic basis for autism. I’m just puzzling over your emotional reasons for defending a fraudster. I’d suggest you go get some basic grounding in science education but you have already demonstrated your lack of ability to grasp factual information.

    • dingo199 says:

      And how do you score 5 out of 5 as an antivaccine campaigner and cubscout reporter, Jake?
      With 600 degrees of separation?

  3. dejah says:

    Jake, don’t you have to go wash your hands or something after stroking like that? Wakefield has been discredited, and his own actions are what did him in. What part of his self-destruction didn’t you understand?

    • Boris Ogon says:

      Now that Jake has allied himself with Patrick “Tim” Bolen, perhaps there’s a surplus Hulda Clark “zapper” to be had for such purposes.

  4. Jake Crosby says:

    dejah, the GMC findings against the Wakefield et al. paper have been exonerated by the High Court. http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Admin/2012/503.html

    • dingo199 says:

      Sorry Jake, have you forgotten how to read? The court case exonerated Walker Smith because it could not be proved he knew he was doing research as opposed to clinical tests. He comes out of that rather badly, admitting he didn’t know what he was doing, but in the process he threw Wakefield under a bus, effectively divorcing himself from the research component of the Lancet 12 cases, and leaving Wakefield to take the blame all on his own.

      Exoneration of the Wakefield paper it is most definitely not. In fact in court the Judge and Walker Smith’s lawyers both agreed that the idea that MMR causes autism has no merit. You know they said that, but for some reason you forget it all the time. Sort of groundhog day in reverse I assume, or just a very biased viewpoint.

  5. Chris Cole says:

    Actually, no, that’s not correct, Jake. The legal findings you provided the link to concern the GMC findings against Prof. John Walker-Smith and his subsequent appeal, not Wakefield.

    Legal opinions of the culpability of a specific individual involved in the study/paper also have very little bearing on the scientific validity of or scientific/academic misconduct involved in it, as a whole. The fact that the paper was considered dodgy enough to have been retracted by The Lancet, and the fact that Wakefield was permanently struck off the medical register should provide some reasonably strong hints to you of the quality of the research and/or clinical conduct involved.

  6. Jake Crosby says:

    They do concern the findings against Dr. Andrew Wakefield because all of the findings the Lancet based its retraction of Wakefield et al. on and nearly all those “found-proved” against him depended on the validity of GMC’s findings against Prof. Walker-Smith. Now that they have all been overturned, Wakefield et al. has been exonerated.

    • Colin says:

      Jake, you are clearly just blind to the truth. Wakefield is a fraud. A dangerous fraud that is risking child lives. The fact that there are blinkered people around like you that will believe any pseudo science rubbish is the reason why the Independent article was so wrong.

      Wakefield is guilty of fraudulent presentation of research. He did this to try to sell his own version of the vaccine. You should wake up to that fact. But I don’t expect you will.

      • Jake Crosby says:

        Actually, the people who say Dr. Wakefield committed fraud are themselves guilty of institutional research misconduct. He was not trying to sell a rival vaccine to MMR; he was encouraging people to take the single measles, mumps and rubella vaccines that were already being administered instead.

      • Colin says:

        Jake,

        Take a look at http://www.bmj.com/content/342/bmj.c5258
        Or look at the Wikipedia article on Wakefield in the section Wakefield v Channel 4 and others

        I won’t bother to repeat that here. There were two financial conflicts of interest: the single measles shot patent and the legal aid fees to link MMR and Autism. This is well documented and discussed elsewhere.

    • abacaxi1966 says:

      Jake – That’s like saying Charles Manson is exonerated because Squeaky Fromme got parole.

  7. It seems we have a natural experiment here :is the decreased take-up of MMR vaccination associated with a decrease in autism? Answer seems to be no: http://www.thisissouthwales.co.uk/Support-vow-rise-autism-rate/story-15410301-detail/story.html#axzz2QVULNytG

  8. Rebecca Fisher says:

    No Jake,

    The court merely found that not enough consideration had originally been given to what Walker-Smith thought he was doing. He *thought* he was was doing clinical work, not research, when that wasn’t the case. Wakefield had hoodwinked him.

    The judgement certainly does not exonerate Wakefield or make his research any more valid – indeed, Prof. Walker-Smith stated there was no evidence of a connection between MMR vaccination and autism.

    Spin it how you like Jake, but Wakefield’s name has not been cleared, except in the minds of the simple-minded sheep who are prepared to believe every blatant lie passed down to them by Mr ShinyFace Fraudytrousers and his acolytes.

    Kind regards,

    Becky

    • Jake Crosby says:

      “…when that wasn’t the case. Wakefield had hoodwinked him.”

      Not according to the High Court.

      “The judgement certainly does not exonerate Wakefield or make his research any more valid…”

      What it does do is defeat any purpose behind the Lancet’s continued retraction of Wakefield et al. and overturn nearly all the GMC findings-of-”fact” against Dr. Wakefield.

  9. Jill Buck says:

    If you believe the outbreak is Wakefields fault and not the governments fault when he is on record for saying “more safety research needs to be done on MMR and therefore use single jabs”. And then the single jabs get “suddenly” pulled from the market. You should go back in time to live during the inquisition. If parents had been able to use single vaccines and outbreak still occurred there would be no one to lynch. It’s not his fault. And safety research that’s not run by the manufacturers DOES need to be done. Acting like these vaccines are safe for every child no matter what, when it’s proven in courts in several countries its not …is just plain stupidity.

    • Colin says:

      No Jill. MMR has had far more research than any single jabs and so proved SAFER. As it is a single jab (or two with booster) rather than three (or six with boosters) it is more effective than single jabs. Also for mass immunization programs it is easier to ensure children get 2 rather than 6 shots. Therefore the state uses MMR.

      If any parent wants to opt out there is nothing to stop them getting this privately. But the State should not promote something less safe, less effective and less efficient for a mass programme. It would not be doing its job if it did.

      Wakefield wanted people to use a single shot measles vaccine that he would have benefited from financially. He created fraudulent research to cast doubt on MMR,safety, to attempt to force this switch. He has been rumbled. The so called research was made up by him. As a result many thousands of parents failed to vaccinate their kids based on this misinformation. Wakefield is personally responsible for this, He should be ashamed.

      However he seems to have attracted a following of people that still believe in him. Why that is, is a bit of a mystery. There is a lobby of parents of Autistic children determined to blame MMR. You can sort of understand their lack of critical thinking. Factors that have a better link with Autism than MMR, such as age of mother, is probably less likely to be accepted by them as a possible link. They blame MMR rather than the timing of having their children. Don’t know, and that probably doesn’t explain them all.

      I do feel sorry for parents of Autism. I have friends who are and I understand the difficulties. However MMR never was a very likley cause of the problem, and with the mass of research done since Wakefield we know it definitely is not.

      • Jake Crosby says:

        According to Cochrane, MMR’s safety is “largely inadequate.”

        For the rest of my response, see my above reply to your earlier comment:

        http://geekmanifesto.wordpress.com/2013/04/14/five-things-not-to-do-if-you-must-write-up-an-andrew-wakefield-press-release/#comment-2825

      • Colin says:

        Jake,

        Again you give misinformation. Here is Cochrane: http://summaries.cochrane.org/CD004407/using-the-combined-vaccine-for-protection-of-children-against-measles-mumps-and-rubella

        The conclusion is in the last paragraph “We could assess no significant association between MMR immunisation and the following conditions: autism, asthma, leukaemia, hay fever, type 1 diabetes, gait disturbance, Crohn’s disease, demyelinating diseases, or bacterial or viral infections”.

        QED

      • dingo199 says:

        I think the relevant cherry-picked, out of context Cochrane quote is actually: “The design and reporting of safety studies is largely inadequate”.
        Why the antivax lobby chooses to misquote this and misinterpret it as saying “safety studies are inadequate” is obvious. Yet they do it again, and again, and again, even when it is pointed out they are wrong. People like Jake, who harbors ideas of becoming an epidemiologist, should be more honest. Science doesn’t like liars, Jake.

      • Jake Crosby says:

        “Again you give misinformation.” Your quote does not contradict what I said.

        “I think the relevant cherry-picked, out of context Cochrane quote is actually: “The design and reporting of safety studies is largely inadequate”.

        My quoting “largely inadequate” wasn’t “cherry-picked” or “out of context” – simply more concise.

      • Colin says:

        Jake,

        I think you are being deliberately misleading here. Clearly you believe and no facts will stop you.

        Cochrane was commenting on the “design and reporting” of safety studies. The fact that a study is not set up or reported well, does not necessarily mean the results are not valid. Cochrane are experts at putting together summary results from a combination of studies. They have done that with all the MMR studies they could use, and then reached their final conclusion. There is no link to Autism. This combined study is following the cases of millions of children. The results are statistically and scientifically overwhelming. There is no doubt.

        Wakefield own study on a mere 13 children was extremely flawed, in both design and reporting. It was a self-selected sample and didn’t get ethics approval. It reported facts that didn’t stand up to the data. The data was also manipulated to “prove” the result Wakefield wanted. Others looking at the same data set have questioned even whether any but one of the children actually had Autism. Which means you have to take a case of one child versus the millions in Cochrane,

        Only people who deny the very clear evidence will doubt MMR is safe.

      • dingo199 says:

        Thanks Jake for admitting that you purposely cherrypick and misquote, and that you are too dim to understand that this alters the meaning of the statement.
        I do hope your thesis supervisor at George Washington University has taken note.

  10. John Davies says:

    To start with (and to steal from Ben Goldacre) that’s a “statement by MMR scare doctor Andrew Wakefield”, or to put it more correctly, a “statement by MMR scare Andrew Wakefield”. Because you’re struck off Wakefield, for lying, taking money to tell lies, and taking money to mislead your patients. There aren’t many more serious crimes for a one-time doctor to have committed.

    Ah! I feel better for that! But the bile still rises, propelled by the body of the statement, where Mister Wakefield apologises not one wit, not for lying and misleading his patients, or for so frightening their parents by his lies that a generation of children are exposed to what should be the fate of an unlucky few. A fate that was the expected course of life for their grandparents, but which medicine, proper medicine, not lies, self aggrandisement and profiteering, had saved their children.

    Seven hundred children with measles in South Wales alone, Mister Wakefield, and all, every single one, at your door. There is a ghastly TV commercial, where a man who has killed a child in a car accident keeps seeing the boy, behind the sofa, in the bathroom, under the bed, in his dreams. While you can write such self-forgiving words, I doubt that you will, but I hope you see those children with measles, and the complications, in your dreams.

    As to why the Indie printed it, I can’t say, nor can I believe that they were the only rag to get it. It must have been a slow news day at Derry Street.
    John

  11. Brian Deer says:

    I popped back to say that The Independent have added a tag to their online version of the Wakefield statement, so that readers can more easily find the paper’s editorial dismissing his allegations.

    But, while I’m here, I should just refresh memories. Wakefield was a gut surgeon, of no consequence to anybody, when in February 1996 he was hired by a firm of lawyers to attack MMR. They picked him because they could not find any paediatrician, or specialist in any relevant field in the UK to do this. They paid him hundreds of thousands of pounds to make his allegations against MMR. The payments were secret. Indeed, when The Sunday Times revealed in 2004 that he had been paid a mere £55,000, he denied receiving money personally, Later, when he sued us for reporting this money, we reported that he was personally paid £435,643, plus expenses (and had asked for much more). He was incentivised at £150 an hour to attack MMR – money agreed prior to the purported research he was commissioned by the lawyers to perform – and we have all the documents to prove it.

    So you have a man with no professional credentials (even then, before he was struck off), telling parents they should forgo MMR for single vaccines, when he was being secretly paid to promote an attack on MMR.

    Many people over the years have said that, on the basis of Wakefield’s own theories, it makes no sense to recommend single vaccines instead of MMR. The missing piece in the jigsaw is that he had been hired for a class action suit (which failed for lack of evidence a decade ago), and that suit was directed specifically at MMR. It wasn’t directed at single vaccines. So it was part of the legal strategy (and also his personal business plans) to destabilise MMR.

    I’ve summarised the thing elsewhere in more detail – http://briandeer.com/mmr/lancet-summary.htm – but I thought the reminder might help.

  12. Tom says:

    Getting back to the science for a moment – Jake, can I ask you a couple of things, do you reckon there is good evidence that MMR can lead to autism? And do you think that every scientist and clinician who says there is no link is part of the vaccine lobby?

    And Jill, do you think that a judge’s deciding to award damages is proof of a causal link?

  13. L@rgEy says:

    Jake, are you also a Scientologist, per chance?

  14. (6) don’t, whatever you do, use the word “doctor” as he’s not, neither in UK nor USA

  15. John Davies says:

    There’s a spat above, between Jake and others, about the validity of the Wakefield ‘research’. We should all be grateful to Brian Deer, who did the work, and has summarised it here, showing that debating the ‘research’s’ validity and application is futile, because it was done for money, paid up front for the result that the payers demanded, so that it is worthless.

    John

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