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.