Published October 11, 2016
Embargoes have been used in journalism since the 1920s. It's a deal between journalists and their sources, which gives the...
— William Wilberforce
The University of Michigan’s C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital in Ann Arbor, MI hired GfK Custom Research, LLC to design and conduct a survey of parents’ opinions about the benefits and safety of vaccines, compared to a year ago.1 GfK is a market research firm that prides itself on being able to “see the big picture.”2 Its descriptive motto is: “Our team of data scientists turns big data into smart data that enable our clients to create winning strategies.”3
So in May 2015, Mott/GfK surveyed 1,416 parents who were at least 18 years old and had at least one child under 18 years of age.3 The individuals were randomly selected from a “stratified group” taken from GfK’s “web-enabled KnowledgePanel® that closely resembles the U.S. population.”3
The result was that, of the 1,416 survey participants, 68% of them felt about the same as they did a year ago regarding vaccines. The survey stated, “Compared to what I thought 1 year ago, today I think the vaccines are… ” Approximately 963 of the participants answered, “About the same.” Approximately 99 (7%) of the participants answered, “Less safe,” while approximately 354 (25%) of them responded, “Safer.”1
There were other questions that had to do with views about vaccination requirements for students and perceptions of the risks of diseases such as measles and whooping cough.
On July 6, 2015, the University of Michigan Health System published the results of the Mott/GfK survey.4
On July 7, TIME magazine ran an article about the Mott/GfK survey written by editor-at-large Jeffrey Kluger titled, “Why Science Is Winning the Vaccine Wars.”5 Note the URL for the piece—http://time.com/ 3947855/vaccine-poll-antivaxxers. That alone should provide a clue of the extreme editorial bias of the article before even proceeding to read it.
But the bias is the least of the problems with Kluger’s piece. The central problem has to do with its foundational premise, which is that the reason that there were more survey participants who believe vaccines are safer than those who believe vaccines are less safe is that the American public finally seems to be coming around to understanding the real science behind vaccines. Kluger writes:
… the parents seemed increasingly to be aligning themselves with the sense and safety of the basic science camp and less with the misinformation and fear-mongering of the anti-vax camp. Overall, only 7% of parents thought vaccines were less safe than they did a year ago, while 25% thought them more safe than they once did; 68% were unchanged. Similarly, only 6% of parents were less supportive of vaccine requirements for students than they used to be, while 35% were more supportive. And 40% and 37% of all parents believed the risk of measles and whooping cough, respectively, have risen for U.S. kids in the past year, while only 15% in both cases thought the danger has decreased.5
Kluger quotes Mott’s Dr. Matthew Davis,6 the director of the survey:
For a quarter to a third of parents to say that their views on the safety and benefits of vaccines have shifted in just a year’s time is quite remarkable.5
Kluger then takes his cue from Davis and goes on to expand:
Actually, it’s more than remarkable. It also confirms what a lot of health-policy experts have been saying for a long time—that once parents started seeing the consequences of vaccine denialism in the form of flash-point epidemics like the Disneyland and Columbus outbreaks, they would come rushing back for the protection vaccines offer. An epidemic of any illness may be a terrible way to learn a lesson, but it’s a decidedly effective one.
Davis partly credits media coverage of the epidemics for helping parents wise up. That’s not just because of the reasonably responsible way news outlets reported the outbreaks, but also because of they way they’ve been edging away from the nonsense coming from anti-vaccine celebrities like Jim Carrey.5
So then, it’s really not about the science after all, is it. It’s more about fear than anything else. Remember the title of Kluger’s article… “Why Science Is Winning the Vaccine Wars.” The implication is that it’s the science of vaccines that is changing peoples’ opinions about vaccines. Oddly, Kluger’s piece is devoid of any discussion of the science. It reads more like one of those advertorials that are becoming such an increasing revenue source for newspapers and magazines in the United States. You know, the print medium’s version of infomercials.
But TIME magazine is extremely influential, so you can bet that other media sources will piggyback on its general storyline. The colorful parade has already begun, with headlines such as “Anti-Vaxxers On The Decline: New Poll Finds Parents Are Gaining Confidence In The Benefits Of Vaccines.”7
It’s unclear why the Mott/GfK survey shows more people thinking that vaccines are safe and that there should be more stringent vaccination requirements for students and that the risks of infectious diseases such as measles and whooping cough have risen. But it’s probably safe to assume that it’s not because Americans suddenly started to seriously read up on the science.
A more likely bet is that it was fear and ignorance—the kind of fear and ignorance stirred up by an irresponsible and lazy media that fails to understand that 169 reported cases of measles from January 1 through May 18 in a country of about 320 million people does not an epidemic make. Much less the kind of national emergency Americans watching TV or surfing the Web were treated to nearly every day during the first four months of this year.
Point in fact, no one died from measles. As many as half of the 169 may have been vaccinated against measles. No one has identified the person who was the source of the outbreak, and so there’s no way of knowing whether he or she was vaccinated or not. And the outbreak was declared over on April 17.9
Given the media’s behavior (… no Mr. Kluger, there was nothing “reasonably responsible” about the way news outlets reported the outbreaks), calling for, as NVIC’s Barbara Loe Fisher noted, “censorship of speech, for parents with unvaccinated children to be hunted down and publicly identified, sued, criminally prosecuted and imprisoned, and for doctors who criticize vaccine safety to have their medical licenses revoked,”10 it’s amazing that the survey didn’t show many more people being manipulated to think vaccines are safer and that the answer to our fears is having the government force parents to cede their parental rights and vaccinate their children against their will and better judgment.
1 C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital. Safer, with More Benefits: Parents’ Vaccines Views Shifting. National Poll on Children’s Health July 6, 2015; 24(2).
1 Google search for GfK. GfK US—We see the big picture.
4 University of Michigan Health System. Safer, with more benefits: parents’ vaccine views shifting.
5 Kluger J. Why Science Is Winning the Vaccine Wars. TIME July 7, 2015.
6 C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital. Matthew Mason Davis MD.
7 Venosa A. Anti-Vaxxers On The Decline: New Poll Finds Parents Are Gaining Confidence In The Benefits Of Vaccines. Medical Daily July 8, 2015.
8 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Measles cases and outbreaks : January 1 to May 1, 2015.
9 Barth S. 5 Facts About Measles Outbreak at Disneyland. Newsmax May 29, 2015.
10 Fisher BL. The Vaccine Culture War in America: Are You Ready?. National Vaccine Information Center Mar. 8, 2015.