Oh my science (2)

There's reporting that you disagree with and then there's an occasional point of journalism that's just wrong. Not just wrong, but dangerously misleading to a degree that goes beyond scary. Case in point - the Sunday Express' front page from yesterday: "JAB AS DEADLY AS THE CANCER"

Now, with the death of Natalie Morton, hours after she'd received the cervical cancer vaccine jab [1] was always going to lead to some interesting reporting. Some has been good, some has been bad and some has been scaremongering. Especially after the point where it was established that she died from a tumour and not the jab.

The story itself is largely built around the fears of an expert, Dr Diane Harper. In many respects, this is nothing unusual. Most journalists have built stories around experts. I've done it myself, although they've usually be economic stories rather than science.

And there's nothing wrong with this, per se. Often an expert provides a new, different angle and also helps with one of the first rules of good journalism: tell the audience something they don't already know. I've learned a lot from chatting to them and the stories are usually interesting.

But a lot depends on the expert themselves, who they are and what they are saying. And that, rather than the story they're talking about, is the important part. Because there are a lot of interesting experts out there.

Let's take AIDS as an example. It's not stretching things too far to say Africa has a serious problem with the disease, and that antiretroviral drugs stop Aids becoming a death sentence for sufferers. Yet there are people, who have lots of expert-looking expert credentials, who will use arguments such as population growth in South Africa as a reason why the numbers of being dying from Aids is too high. Or that vitamins can cure the disease.

In short, they can sell themselves as experts but their claims aren't necessarily the kind you'd put on the front page of a newspaper, and strongly suggest this outsider view is worth listening to.

But back to the Express and the cancer jab story, which, by the time the Express ran the interview, was fast becoming old news.

Reporting on just about any kind of issue is always going to ensure somebody shakes their head and disagrees with it. The more high-profile and emotive the story, the more likely this is.

I don't often agree with the Sun or the Mail's take on current affairs, but there are plenty of others who'll be in tune with this line of thinking. There are tabloid scares - some justified, and some not - but usually there's some basis to start from.

Not here. Virtually every bit of the Express article is just plain wrong. I dislike hyperbole, but there's a very real chance that parents could read the story, refuse to allow their daughters the jab, only for their daughter to catch the virus, and contract cancer. This isn't politics, or food scares, or the like, this is the health, life and potentially death of the next generation of the female population. Is it really worth getting blood on the hands to sell a few extra papers in this manner?

I'm not hugely fond of jumping up and down and crying bad journalism at the tabloids (or the broadsheets) - stones and glass houses and all that. There's a lot of good journalism in all of them, and I'm continually amazed in the best possible way at how good some of the journalists I know one these papers are.

But just because we're in a profession, doesn't mean we can't hold it to account and call it out when publications get it badly, dangerously wrong. There's a line between reporting potential health problems and dangerous scaremongering that could cost lives. On this occasion, the Express have crossed it [2]. I posted a link to the piece on Twitter earlier. One response from a journalist said: "That makes me want to disown my profession."

In fact, this story has got me so upset at the reporting that I'm going to do something I've never even come remotely close to ever wanting to do before: complain to the Press Complaints Commission.

Frankly, I don't expect it to have much effect. The organisation is somewhat toothless at the best of time. And writing to it feels like grassing up somebody at school.

But if nobody says anything, it means there will be more bad science, more panic and, potentially, more lives lost. I'm not trying to set myself as an arbiter of what's good or bad journalism; I'm just beyond appalled at this one article.

If you feel the same, then I'd urge you to also complain.To help, my old colleague Chris White has already written a letter (about 3 minutes after reading the story). He sent me the text of his complaint and I've reprinted it below. Feel free to adapt it for your own use:

"The front page of the issue of the Sunday Express published on 4 October 2009 leads with the headline "Jab 'as deadly as the cancer'."

The "jab" in question is the Cervarix vaccination against the two strains of human papillomavirus shown to trigger up to 70% of cases of cervical cancer.

The story follows the death of 14-year-old schoolgirl Natalie Morton, who died shortly after receiving the vacciation - but whose postmortem found her cause of death to have been a previously undiagnosed tumour.

The claim that the vaccination is as deadly as the cancer is manifestly untrue. At the time of this solitary death, around 1.5 million girls had received the vaccination. Cervical cancer affects an estimated 16 women per 100,000 per year, and is fatal for around 9 women per 100,000 per year. Even if the vaccination had been responsible for the death of Natalie Morton, then the cancer is clearly almost 150 times more dangerous than the vaccination.

That this is based on the opinion of "expert" Diane Harper is irrelevant. It doesn't matter what her opinion is: it only matters what the data show. (This is why academics are subject to a process of peer review for publishing their work: despite their supposed expertise, papers must be approved of by their peers before publication. The mere opinions even of experts count for little within their own communities and should not carry any greater weight with the public, nor with journalists.) There are no data suggesting that the vaccination is dangerous.

Furthermore, the quote from one Richard Halvorsen questioning the postmortem finding that Natalie Morton died from cancer, "If you have cancer you have symptoms", is, essentially, a lie. Many cases of cancer can be asymptomatic -- including, in a tragic piece of irony, most cases of cervical cancer.

This is little more than ill-founded scaremongering and irresponsible journalism of the worst kind. Its only effect is bound to be -- as was the case with the coverage the MMR "controversy" -- to reduce take-up of the vaccine, in which case the Sunday Express will share responsibility for further deaths."

EDIT: Malcolm Coles has flagged up his campaign to get Google's results to show better advice and information for parents concerned about the jab, so I'm more than happy to include links to cervical cancer jab information, cervical cancer vaccination, and a Q&A about the cervical cancer vaccine.

[1] Ok, I'm taking liberties here as well. I know it's jab about the virus that can lead to cervical cancer rather than the cancer itself.

[2] Ironically, a story from the Express was held us as a good example of science reporting at the debate between Lord Drayson and Ben Goldacre, and I'd go along with the Science Minster to a point when he says that sensationalist reporting can be good for science. The Express' article goes long beyond that point.