Sidelined by False Balance on a Local TV Show

February 6, 2015 Karie Youngdahl

I’ve been getting calls from reporters and producers in record numbers in the past weeks as US measles cases have been increasing. I’ve talked to people from Bloomberg Politics, the San Jose Mercury News, CNN, the Baltimore Sun, Men’s Health, Chicago public radio station WBEZ, CBS Interactive, Canadian radio show Day 6, Sirius XM’s Doctor Radio, and a local Philadelphia TV station.

The one interaction I’ve had that distressed me was with a local TV station. They asked me to appear on a news magazine segment to talk about measles history and the history of the anti-vaccination movement. A few other segments would air on the same show, one about health insurance enrollment and one about, of all things, sports betting.

The taping happened yesterday. As I was in the green room waiting to go on first, a woman named Honey arrived. I assumed she was the sports betting interviewee, as I had already met the health insurance guest. The producer took Honey outside the room to prep her. And then I heard the words “twins,” “vaccine-injured,” and “autistic.”

After that I had just a few minutes to get behind the big plastic desk and start the interview. The anchor really didn’t want to talk about history at all and focused on the measles outbreak and vaccine refusal. I shouldn’t have been surprised about that, though they had assured me they didn’t want a doctor for the segment.

I couldn’t stay for Honey’s segment, since I had a radio show to tape next. I did find an appearance she made on the Today show in 2008, in which Honey stated that Jenny McCarthy was her hero. She told a story very similar to Jenny’s: the normally developing child(ren), the vaccines shortly after one year of age, and the claim that their souls left them. Honey makes many media appearances and, I gathered, has been a guest at this channel before.

I wish I’d had to the presence of mind to address what I knew would follow (or perhaps precede) my segment, if only to say that show was committing the sin of false balance by pairing my statements with that of a critic of vaccines, voicing claims that have been time and again refuted by evidence. But it was my first TV appearance and I felt incredibly constrained by the format. I also remember what I've heard Paul Offit say about these situtations and why he won't appear with people who say their children have been harmed by vaccines: in that situation, there are only three roles: the good guy (the mom), the sufferer, and the villian -- invariably the person who's representing the medical side.

Next time, if there is one, I hope I can disrupt the narrative or refuse to participate in the charade of “balance.” Granted, I haven't seen the show, but I can't imagine that the anchor will do anything forceful to challenge Honey's narrative.

On a more positive note, I had a good radio conversation about the history of anti-vaccination sentiments with Brent Bambury of Day 6. That will air the morning of February 7 on CBC stations as well as on 35 US PBS stations. Also to come: Doctor Radio on SIRIUSXM Monday, February 9, at 8 am EST, with History of Vaccines advisor Thomas Fekete.


Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

Hello, Ms. Youngdahl. I was wondering if you could address Ms. Rinicella's comments on mitochondrial disease as a possible contraindication for vaccination and whether it is possible to screen for this before vaccinations. Thank you.

Posted by Karie Youngdahl

Hi there, thank you for your question. I have to say that I didn't watch Ms. Rinicella's segment, but I did see her appearance on the Today show segment I mention above. So I don't know exactly what she said, though I have heard and read others discussing this issue. Klein et al. (2011) have published on this question, finding that, "Immunization was not associated with increased risk for serious adverse events during the month after vaccination, providing overall reassurance that routine vaccination of children with inborn errors of metabolism does not result in adverse effecta." The CDC has addressed the question here They cite the costs and difficulties of screening for mitochondrial diseases. This would be an argument against widespread screening for these disorders, though they do urge parents with concerns about mitochondrial diseases to discuss them with their doctor. And they say, "We do know that certain illnesses that can be prevented by vaccines, such as the flu, can trigger the regression that is related to a mitochondrial disease. More research is needed to determine if there are rare cases where underlying mitochondrial disorders are triggered by anything related to vaccines. However, we know that for most children, vaccines are a safe and important way to prevent them from getting life-threatening diseases." Finally, Paul Offit's comment on the Hannah Poling case is instructive

Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

Thanks for your response. One more question, if/when you have time, given that mitochondrial disease comes up frequently in the discussion of vaccine safety. What symptoms might a parent look for that could indicate that testing for mitochondrial disease might be in order, whether for the purpose of decisions regarding vaccinations or not?

Posted by Karie Youngdahl

You're welcome. I would defer to groups working in this field for information. But to quote some of them here, according to the United Mitochondrial Disease Foundation, these are the symptoms an undiagnosed individual could exhibit: "The child or adult may have seizures, severe vomiting, failure to thrive, heat/cold intolerance, poor muscle tone, delayed achievement of milestones, severe diarrhea/constipation, feeding problems, unable to fight typical childhood infections or repeated infections and fevers without a known origin. A "red flag" for mitochondrial disease is when a child or adult has more than three organ systems with problems or when a "typical" disease exhibits atypical qualities." The Mitochondrial Medicine Society has some resources, too:

Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

I also wanted to thank you for your very professional and calm response to the question about the dangers of the current measles outbreak. It was refreshing to hear from someone in favor of vaccines who did not add to what I see as an unhealthy climate of divisiveness and fear.