The Age of Autism: 'The Times' vs. parents

By DAN OLMSTED, United Press International   |   July 11, 2005 at 2:36 PM
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Last week this column critiqued a June 25 article in The New York Times, "On Autism's Cause, It's Parents vs. Research." Subsequently we were forwarded copies of two letters that a parents group sent to the Times' public editor.

One letter accused the paper of a pattern of unfair coverage up to and including the June 25 piece. The second was a demand for several corrections to that article. Both letters, from the group SafeMinds, argued the same point: The parents' view, that a mercury-based preservative used in vaccines may have caused an autism epidemic, did not get a fair hearing.

Anyone in the news business knows that accusations of bias and hidden agendas flow freely, usually to the same effect as water off a duck. My weekend inbox, for instance, brought a letter chastising me for ignoring fraud in the 2004 presidential election and advised, "Please do your job or seek alternative employment."

Noted, but a claim that a story contains outright errors of fact makes journalists (and their editors) sit up and take notice. Usually.

SafeMinds said the Times misspelled the name of Lyn Redwood, the group's president. Lyn "One N" Redwood told me she did not even bother mentioning that in the letter to the editor because it was minor compared to the errors she wanted addressed. Perhaps, but most journalists hate misspelling someone's name about as much as they hate anything. Because names are so easy to get right -- all you have to do is ask -- getting names wrong casts a shadow of doubt on more nuanced matters if someone decides to dispute them, particularly someone whose name was misspelled.

Another mistake SafeMinds called almost too minor to matter was in a sidebar list of six studies that accompanied the article. Five of the six found no link between autism and thimerosal, the aforementioned mercury-based preservative. That certainly is a strike against the parents' argument.

One of the accompanying photographs of the actual scientific papers, though, is wrong, SafeMinds said. It is a study of the MMR vaccine, which has nothing to do with the autism-thimerosal debate.

Another issue the parents raise is the Times' description of reports collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. The Times article said they are "complaints sent to the disease control centers by people who suspect that their children were harmed by vaccines." In other words, by the "parents vs. research" who assert vaccines caused their children's problems.

In fact, SafeMinds said, the overwhelming majority of those "complaints" -- actually called adverse-events reports -- come from vaccine manufacturers and healthcare providers, with only 4.2 percent coming from parents or patients. (The letter provides a link to the CDC statement: www.cdc.gov/mmwr/PDF/ss/ss5201.pdf. The relevant paragraph is on page 6.)

What did the Times say in response? "I don't see any need for any corrective action," Byron Calame, the Times public editor, told SafeMinds. Alas, he spelled it "SafeMind."

Here is where it gets really strange. The article begins with an exchange between two parents: Kristen Ehresmann, a Minnesota state health official with an autistic child, and Libby Rupp, a parent who suspects vaccines caused her daughter's autism.

Rupp told us the conversation actually took place with another official -- that the reporter got it wrong. The net effect, she said, was to make her argument look bad, because it pitted her against an "expert" who also had an autistic child. (The official with whom Rupp said she actually spoke would not help -- "I don't talk to the media," she said.)

This gets awfully complicated. Ehresmann insisted to me on Monday she actually did have this conversation with Rupp. Also, she noted, the Times double-checked it with her. The public editor said he will look into it when the reporter, who is on leave, returns.

Why do we care about such trivia as how people spell their names, which study belongs where, who sends the CDC "complaints" about vaccines and who spoke to whom about their child's autism?

Because opinion matters, but facts matter more. In the debate about what causes autism, it is time to insist on them -- and not just from parents.

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This ongoing series on the roots and rise of autism welcomes reader feedback. E-mail: dolmsted@upi.com

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