Fear and pity galvanize readers

16 Feb

Fear and pity galvanize readers, says British journalist Brian Deer.  The MMR vaccine-austism hoax, a story of public interest was transformed into an easy story that dominated newspapers for over seven years.  

Deer recounted a story from the Daily Mail in 2000 about a girl who suffered from autism.  Deer said that for the parents “it was like living with the ghost of your dead child.”

These stories interest readers because they are emotional and inspire feelings of pity for the victims.  The MMR vaccine autism link builds fear in the public because of the obvious health concerns.  This winning combination made stories on MMR a high selling story. 

courtesy of Brian Deer

For over seven years in Britain, Deer investigated the Lancet study produced by Dr. Andrew Wakefield claiming that the MMR vaccine caused regressive autism and inflammatory bowel disease.  Deer conducted extensive research and found that there was no concrete scientific proof for the claims in the report.  He described his experience investigating the story to an audience at Ryerson on Wednesday.

The study by Wakefield was commissioned by a lawyer for around $750,000 US, who was planning a speculative lawsuit against the makers of the vaccine.  The misleading study created a mass hysteria and created a massive slump in vaccination rates.  The MMR debate created two stories in one, because the threat of measles was caused by the paranoia of getting vaccinated.  People were afraid, and the media continued to feature the pitiful victims.

Deer’s investigation found that the study was tampered and contrived.  The General Medical Council held the longest professional misconduct hearing, which lasted 217 days, and stripped Wakefield of his medical license.

“I think the role of the journalist is to test the evidence,” says Brian Deer.

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