Originally appeared on ReportingOnHealth.org on August 30, 2010
Science, politics and policy in the minefield
Around 8 p.m. on the evening of Dec. 23, 2009, my 12-year-old son and I were puttering around the house when there was a sudden, loud banging at the front door.
“I have legal papers for Amy Wallace,” a brusque woman’s voice said from the other side of the door when I asked who was there. I was startled. The voice sounded unpleasant. It was dark out. It was the night before Christmas Eve. I didn’t feel like welcoming the voice in. Can you leave the papers outside, I asked? “Are you Amy Wallace?” barked the voice. “Uh,” I said, hesitating, my head muddy. Who was sending me legal papers?
“I’m going to take that as a yes!” the voice said, and not in a friendly way. “I saw you through the window. Consider yourself served!”
A little more than two months before, the November issue of Wired magazine had hit newsstands. The cover story was “An Epidemic of Fear: One Man’s Battle Against the Anti-vaccine Movement,” and I had written it. In part, the story was a profile of Dr. Paul Offit, the co-inventor of the rotavirus vaccine and a leading proponent of vaccines for children. But the story also painted a portrait of a passionate movement led by people who believe vaccines injure and kill children. And on Dec. 23, one of those people sued me, Dr. Offit and Conde Nast, the company that publishes Wired, for one million dollars.
We’ll get to the allegations of the suit in a second. But since I’m writing this for journalists, let me say this: getting sued for libel is just as big a bummer as you’ve always feared.
I’ve been a journalist for more than half my life. I have written for newspapers and magazines, I have been a reporter, an editor, a staff writer, an editor-at-large. Never before have I been a defendant. I am careful. I am meticulous. Above all, I work hard to be not just factual, but fair — to put bits of information in their proper context.
But here’s the simple truth: If someone wants to sue you, they can. Easily, too. And Barbara Loe Fisher, the cofounder and president of the National Vaccine Information Center in Vienna, Virginia, the largest, oldest, and most influential of the watchdog groups that oppose universal vaccination, wanted to sue me. So she did.
Challenge your assumptions
I’ve been asked to offer advice in this essay to those thinking of writing about vaccines. My basic advice is the same as I’d offer to people interested in covering public schools or Congress or the environment. Learn everything you can about the topic. (The resource guide posted on USC’s ReportingonHealth.org website is excellent in this regard). Challenge your own assumptions and be open to all points of view. Talk to lots of people and be willing to ask dumb questions. Then, take care to get every detail — big or small — right in print. And when I say right, I mean it in both the micro and macro sense. Context is everything.
But even as I ask you to bring the same rigor to every topic you choose, it must be acknowledged that writing about an emotionally charged issue like vaccines brings with it special challenges and is something to think carefully about. Like writing about abortion or animal rights, writing about vaccines inevitably raises the ire of certain readers. It is not for the timid. I’m not saying you have to be a fiery advocate. On the contrary. But you should go into the job with eyes open.
Autism’s False Prophets, Dr. Offit’s 2008 book, opened my eyes to the risks of reporting on vaccines. Before I began working on my Wired story I read it, focusing at first on his straightforward description of what being a vaccine advocate had cost him. He’d been vilified on the Internet as a profiteer, a prostitute who serviced Big Pharma, and worse. He’d been physically accosted. His life had been threatened. Once, an anonymous caller had even implied they might go after Offit’s two children.