Monday, October 15, 2007

Mainstream Media and Responsibility

photo credit-Todd Baker
creative commons license

What responsibility does a mainstream paper have for what is published on its online edition? Either the Chicago Tribune thinks that normal journalistic standards do not apply, or it is extremely lazy when it comes to enforcing them.

For the second time in a month (see my previous entry here), the Tribune ran a story on its online edition that was factually unsound, full of scare tactics, and downright kooky regarding autism. The story, "Autism recovery stories: Mercury poisoning?" appeared on a Chicago Tribune blog that is part of the Chicago Tribune web edition. The story appeared under the byline of Julie Deardorff, who is the writer of the blog "Julie's Health Club", which is regularly included in the Tribune's web edition.

Now I know that if anyone from the Tribune comes here to comment, they'll most likely say that blogs are expressions of an individual's opinion, and thus are free from the usual requirements of things like the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics. And while I feel that the ethics and responsibilities of personal blogs are still evolving, and that the public mostly expects that personal blogs will have to be filtered somewhat to figure out what is fact and what is purely personal opinion, I believe that when a journalistic entity (e.g., the Chicago Tribune) puts its imprimatur on a blog and includes it in it's web edition that professional ethics should apply. Otherwise all of what is printed in the Chicago Tribune (whether online or in print) becomes suspect as to its veracity. Unless of course the Tribune wants to start doing stories on Elvis sightings and Alien abductions, and change its name to the "Chicago Enquirer".

It's not like the Tribune is linking to random outside blogs of interest. The blog is one of many hosted on the Tribune's site, and Deardorff, the author of the blog, has a tribune e-mail

Deardorff starts out this article repeating some of the same tired old falsehoods regarding mercury and autism.

For almost four years, no one could explain to Julie Obradovic why her daughter Eve (left) was suffering from "non-stop ear and bronchial infections, bladder infections, severe constipation that would leak out in water, eczema, loss of skin coloring (inability to burn or tan), chronic yeast infections, insomnia, seizures and staring spells."

But when Obradovic, of Homer Glen, Ill., discovered Eve had been exposed to mercury and the symptoms were signs of mercury posioning, she decided to investigate.

Here's her story, the fourth in an occasional series that looks at how parents have tried to treat their autistic children.

The very first line from the SPJ's Code of Ethics states:
— Test the accuracy of information from all sources and exercise care to avoid inadvertent error. Deliberate distortion is never permissible.

Now it wouldn't take much investigation to see that the diagnostic criteria for autism have almost nothing to do with the symptoms stated in that first paragraph of the story. A quick Google search for "DSM IV autism criteria" led me here. A quick Google of "mercury poisoning criteria" led me to the CDC here. A perusal of the two collection of symptoms would quickly let one know that there is very little, if any, overlap at all. A fairly complete comparison of the two was done by Kevin Leitch and can be found on Wikipedia here. Of note, Kevin Leitch doesn't even consider himself a "professional" blogger, yet he includes references to scientific articles, whereas Ms. Deardorff does not.

Later in the article, Ms. Obradovic continues talking about her daughter's illness:

At about age 3 and 1/2, I learned that she was injected with mercury at her most vulnerable stage of development. I didn't really know what to make of that, and decided to investigate. Months later, after exhaustive research, I was able to confirm that almost every single symptom of what was wrong with her was a symptom of mercury poisoning. It absolutely defied logic to believe that was a coincidence.

Ms. Obradovic is obviously referring to the "controversy" as to whether the mandatory childhood vaccines (and the low amounts of thimerosal-a form of mercury-that was long ago eliminated from them) cause autism. But Ms. Deardorff doesn't explain this at all in her article. Perhaps she thinks if she doesn't point this out that she doesn't have to also explain that all credible scientific evidence refutes this thoroughly.

Many credible, well researched, and well documented responses were written to the article, but Ms. Deardorff refused to either retract her post, or even to admit in any way that she had failed miserably in researching the article.

For those that think I'm being too hard on Ms. Deardorff, I return to the fact that hers is not a private blog located randomly on the net, but a blog sponsored and hosted by a major paper in a major US market. And I would hope that Ms. Deardorff would not claim ignorance of journalistic ethics, as her bio states that she has a degree in journalism (as well as an MBA).

Even if one feels that all blogs (including those sponsored by a major newspaper) are not subject to the same standards as a newspaper, one might consider what this online list of blogger ethics has to say:

• Never publish information they know is inaccurate -- and if publishing questionable information, make it clear it's in doubt.
• Distinguish between advocacy, commentary and factual information. Even advocacy writing and commentary should not misrepresent fact or context.
• Admit mistakes and correct them promptly.
• Disclose conflicts of interest, affiliations, activities and personal agendas.
• Deny favored treatment to advertisers and special interests and resist their pressure to influence content. When exceptions are made, disclose them fully to readers. ...

Unfortunately, Ms. Deardorff doesn't look good even when her actions are held up to this lesser standard of practice.

I hope that the Chicago Tribune is just ignorant of what is happening in its web edition, and has not willfully allowed such unsubstantiated rubbish to be published under its masthead. The history of the Tribune deserves better, the legitimate journalists on the Tribune deserve better, and most of all, the readers of the Tribune deserve better.

n.b. After I had most of this post written I discovered that Orac (who wrote some of those well thought out responses on the Tribune site) had already blogged on this article. Since I had already written most of mine, I decided to go ahead with this anyway. I encourage one and all to go to Orac's site and read what he had to say about this.


Anonymous said...

Two perspectives on one subject are always better than one.
Best wishes

J said...

Ahhhh how I wish I could be as neutral and "above it all" as Maddy. We could use more of her sweetness and less acrimony.

Joe - Awesome analysis. Nice of you to link Orac, but you did a great job of explaining why this was such a poorly written article/blog. I absolutely agree that the Trib has plenty of responsibility on issues that they put their stamp on.

Is this the front edge of a movement by major publishers to skirt their journalistic integrity using "it's just a blog" as their excuse?

isles said...

Parents make the same bad decisions regardless of whether the misinformation they read about vaccines comes from the official paper or a blog by a reporter identified by the paper. The Tribune has been irresponsible, to say the least.

mysamiam said...

Thanks for making me aware. I dissed the Trib after having comments rejected when I commented on a couple OpEd writings after the Katie McCarron murder. Seemed to me they wanted to defend her mom and write off autism. I have since not taken any time to keep up, but will check out your links. Thanks for your always, well thought, insight.

Patrick said...

After reading both of your posts regarding this I also wonder what kind of advertising revenue or kick back schema might be involved as the author shamelessly plugs a treatment center by name.

It's like, 'these folks can cure it', but then many of the issues she is dealing with are far removed from autism. (ie parasites and neglect)

I also agree that the use of teh phrase 'the child' seems extremely impersonal and cold.

Get a brain and have a heart.

Anonymous said...

It's Liz from I Speak of Dreams.

I'm sad to tell you that Kev Leitch shut down his blog this weekend, because of harassment by that trogdolyte John Best.

more here.

Club 166 said...

I deleted a "comment" that was a sales pitch for a book. It may have been a good book. I don't know.

But I have made a decision not to have ads on this blog, so that's the way it goes.