Networks Ignore Role Media Played in Autism Battle

Recent coverage is improved, but ABC, CBS, NBC previously kept fears of vaccine link alive for 15 years.

Although recent broadcasts have done a better job of reporting on vaccines, for 15 years before that the same broadcast networks had helped sustain the myth that there was a link between autism and vaccines.

During the 15 years before May 2014, ABC, CBS and NBC aired 171 stories and fed the anti-vaccine movement even after the science was debunked by giving time to anti-vaccine celebrities and politicians, the scientist responsible for the anti-vaccination fears, and to families blaming autism on vaccines.

Since then, the networks’ morning and evening news shows have aired nine more stories mentioning both autism and vaccine. Eight of those nine stories were a marked improvement over previous coverage because they clearly and repeatedly said vaccines were safe and there was no science to support the claim that vaccines can cause autism.

The ninth story portrayed the matter as a political football in a way designed to make the GOP look bad. CBS “Evening News” quoted a series of pro-vaccine Republicans on Feb. 3, contrasting their views with recent comments from Governor Chris Christie, R- N.J., and Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky. Paul claimed he knew of cases where vaccines might have cause “profound mental disorders.” CBS News Congressional Correspondent Nancy Cordes said that “mixed messages left an opening for possible Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton,” who tweeted that vaccines were safe.

While emphasizing the safety of vaccines, some of those stories still remained sympathetic to parents who had not vaccinated their children because of fears of autism. On the Jan. 24, “Today” broadcast, NBC News medical contributor Dr. Natalie Azar said that “speaking as a mother myself, I understand that when you’re dealing with something as so emotionally highly charged as autism, that people can get very, very fixed in their beliefs.”

NBC also clung  to the phrase “debate” on Sept. 3, 2014, when former “Today” co-host Willie Geist brought up the issue.

“As you say, the science shows there isn’t a link. But there are parents who hold on to that. They say, ‘I had a perfectly healthy child at twelve months and at fourteen or sixteen months, something changed and in that window they got an awful lot of shots,’” Geist said.

During recent coverage, the networks also avoided taking responsibility for their roles in previously perpetuating the myth that vaccines can be linked to autism. On Feb. 3, 2015, NBC News Political Director Chuck Todd blamed “the rise of social media” for spreading fears and misinformation about vaccines on “Today.” He also said politicians avoided taking a firm stand on vaccines because they “always want to make an exception for religious freedom.” But Todd said nothing about the way his network and others contributed to those fears for many years.

Methodology: MRC Business examined the stories during morning and evening shows on ABC, CBS, and NBC from May 15, 2014, through Feb. 3, 2015. The shows included were “Good Morning America,” “This Morning,” “Today,” “World News,” “Evening News,” and “Nightly News.” All stories that mentioned “vaccine” and “autism” were counted because those were the terms used in the previous MRC analysis. There were nine stories.