Media malpractice on religion and vaccination

One of the most important things for reporters to do when covering a new study is to read the study and the supporting documents. There was a particularly good recent example of what happens when reporters don’t do that.

First let’s look at the links in the media. The Huffington Post, The Gaurdian, The Telegraph and The Daily Mail covered a study by GP magazine about how some schools in the UK are opting out of cervical cancer vaccinations for “religious reasons.”

The headlines include:

Schools deny girls cervical cancer jabs on religious grounds:
Female pupils not being offered potentially life-saving vaccine at schools that oppose premarital sex

Schools opting out of cervical cancer vaccine campaign ‘due to religion’
Schoolgirls are being denied a potentially life-saving cervical cancer jab at their schools on the grounds of religion.

Schools are denying girls life-saving cervical cancer jab because of religious objections

Cervical Cancer Jab: Pupils In UK Are Being Denied Vaccination By Schools On Religious Grounds

You get the idea. And that was, in fact, what the press release from GP said. One would be forgiven for thinking that there must be a large number of religious schools who are not vaccinating against sexually transmitted diseases for backward religious reasons.

And yet this had about as much grounding in reality as much of the rest of the mainstream media-driven “war on women” data we’ve seen here in the States.

The study wasn’t terribly expansive. It looked at 24 schools. Of those schools, only nine were even religious. And of those nine, guess how many said that their policy against STD vaccinations was for religious reasons? If you guessed “two,” you win the coveted prize.

Now for bonus points, guess how many students are at these schools. Both schools, it turns out, have fewer than 10 pupils.

All of the stories more or less reprinted the press release they were given. None looked into the data before running with the angle chosen by the public relations team behind that press release. Not a single story explained that the headlines were about two schools with no more than 20 students.

It’s not just religion news stories where we see shoddy coverage of studies, of course, but it’s a good reminder to read studies before reporting on them. In the States, it seems like we only see reporters doing that if they don’t agree with a study’s conclusions. It should be done no matter the bias of the reporter.

Vaccine photo via Shutterstock.

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  • sari

    In the States, it seems like we only see reporters doing that if they don’t agree with a study’s conclusions. It should be done no matter the bias of the reporter.

    This has been less true of media coverage on the supposed link between vaccines and autism spectrum disorders, Mollie. Both sides have received

    a lot

    of press on a topic that has become a sort of religion to the parents involved. Most articles include comments about parental rights to opt out for religious reasons when enrolling children in public schools and the mini-epidemics cropping up as herd immunity wanes.

  • http://authenticbioethics.blogspot.com AuthenticBioethics

    Another thing to consider is whether or not the girls are being deprived of their jabs absolutely, or only through the schools. If a religious school in the US declined to provide such shots on religious grounds through their school nurse or consulting physician, the kids can get them through their pediatrician or public health agency or something. No one is depriving anyone of anything. Just “not here.”

  • Thinkling

    >>No one is depriving anyone of anything. Just “not here.”

    Indeed. This confusion seems to be a recurring meme in coverage of religious topics.

    And it underscores further how there really isn’t much there there in this particular story.

  • http://authenticbioethics.blogspot.com AuthenticBioethics

    Thinkling, I’m just a little surprised they didn’t use the word “ban” — “Religious schools BAN life-saving cervical cancer jabs for girls” — its one of those words that really clues the reader in as to which side to take.

  • sari

    Deputy chairman of the British Medical Association’s general practitioners committee Dr Richard Vautrey said: …”It is also a concern if PCTs are not informing practices about HPV uptake. Once the responsibility for this activity has been transferred from PCTs to public health departments based in local authorities next year there should no longer be any excuse for failing to protect children in this way.”

    This is, I think, what the articles (several of which are identical) meant to convey, and totally missed. At present, public health uses schools to provide information about the vaccine and on-site innoculation (interesting in itself, since a small but significant percentage of girls become weak or faint within 30 minutes). A small subset of schools has refused to allow the shots to be administered, and an even smaller subset has refused to pass along information about the shots’ availability in other venues. All this will change, per the quote above, when the program’s implementation shifts to the health service.

    What’s interesting here, apart from the hysterical tone, is the absence of any medical data (excepting The Telegraph): incidence, modes of transmission, female-only inoculation, potential side effects, mortality from HPV.

    Authentic Bio–one could argue deprivation if the the school deliberately withheld information that might be beneficial to the student. Certainly, the information could be shared with parents, who could then allow their beliefs to guide their actions. Schools regularly serve as information vectors in the States, and, it appears, in the UK as well.


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