Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Debunking Gets It's Fifteen Minutes in the Media

Debunking got some media attention this past week! Hurray! NPR's Bob Garfield hosted an On The Media chat with Craig Silberman, a fellow at Columbia's Tow Center for Journalism and bestill my heart, founder of Emergent, a rumor tracking/news debunking website. The topic: Uncorrected Rumors. My ears perk up and my spirits rise when I hear talk of "unverified claims" and "misinformation" and on my birthday too, a perfect gift.

Silverman, the debunker-in-chief pins a lot of blame on the media. He told Garfield "when it comes to misinformation, in many ways news organizations are part of the problem rather than the solution." In fact he makes an even stronger case for the media botching it from the get-go in a report he compiled for the Tow Center:
News websites dedicate far more time and resources to propagating questionable and often false claims than they do working to verify and/or debunk viral content and online rumors. Rather than acting as a source of accurate information, online media frequently promote misinformation in an attempt to drive traffic and social engagement. Lies, Damned Lies and Viral Content 

Readers here know the many ways the media perpetuate error and innuendo. One of the most common missteps that fortunately Silverman addresses includes failing to following up on rumors or stories that turn out to be false. In journalistic lingo, the media fails to follow through on verification. After the news media linked a mass grave in Mexico to students that had been killed, only about third of the outlets bothered reporting weeks later there was no correction according to Silverman. I'd argue that there is very little verification when it comes to children's health news. Other than the debunked link between autism and vaccines, when is the last time you recall reading an article correcting any factoids or inaccurate coverage of children's health let alone parenting advice?

Then there are the headlines. Silverman brings up several types that don't need much explanation here. Parents practically get hit over the head with the strong headlines. For example, ones like these:
  • The headline that makes a claim seem truer or stronger than it is. Watching TV Makes Kids Violent. (Notice the casual language.)
  • The headline with the question mark, also making claim appear stronger. TV Encourages Aggressive Behavior? (these are all my examples here, duh!)
Either through casual language or the strategic question mark, the headlines regularly introduce more certainty that than the scientific evidence suggests. I'd also argue headlines also up the ante and drama with absolute ratios. Daily TV Linked to Five-Fold Increase in Violence. Not Breastfeeding Doubles Risk of Obesity. 

Contrast this with the striking scenario I noticed on reporting of the new peanut allergy research, yes that landmark, game-changing study - the media chose that remarkable moment to insert some uncertainty, some hesitation into the headlines. CNN: Early Consumption May Prevent Peanut Allergies, NPR: Feeding Babies With Foods With Peanuts Appears To Prevent Allergies, NY Times: Feeding Infants Peanut Products Could Prevent Allergies. Seriously, I cannot make this stuff up. Who knew the media would chose that moment to hedge their bets? Headlines misinform or distort in some pretty subtle ways. Another tactic, Breastfed Kids Smarter! So here a correlational result (a correlation between breastfeeding and intelligence) gets translated into headline that I'd bet most people interpret as breastfeeding makes kids smarter. The seed is planted, firmly, especially when the nuance gets buried in the final paragraph or by the lead researcher telling us how surprised she was to find such a big difference between breastfed and formula-fed kids.  I designed the study but wow, I was so surprised by the results!

We at Momma Data also know too well that readers tend to believe the claim in the headline as Silver pointed out. People still tend to believe the headlines, even if after reading the article that raises some uncertainty. After a claim gets planted in the head, it's hard to dislodge. Especially with repetition. Social psychologists have worried for decades about how false information sticks like super glue.

As much as it pains me, sigh, even debunking carries risks. As Silverman and Garfield both lamented, reading or hearing false or inaccurate information over and over, even if in a debunking context, lends it some credibility. Debunking doesn't appear to change the minds of people with extreme or strongly held views, in fact it can backfire strengthening opinions and beliefs. The autism-vaccine-measles debacle very well may become the textbook phenomenon for understanding the role of the media in perpetuating and correcting misinformation and also in the realms of public and psychology, how people respond to misinformation and its correction. Researchers already have published studies but the results are not encouraging as I've reported. There have been no singular, clear solutions for how to address or change people's incorrect beliefs, especially about vaccinations, although there are some hints. Silverman in a report for the Tow Center shows some reporting tactics for correcting misinformation and argues, amen, an important step involves journalists using more skeptical thought before reporting questionable information.

Read Silverman's Lies, Damn Lies and Viral Content paper here.
Listen to the On The Media podcast here.

Thursday, March 05, 2015

Shot At Life Summit: Advocating for Global Vaccines

Imagine half the kindergarteners in the US dying from diseases we could prevent. Horrendous. Catastrophic. Over 1.5 million deaths would be unimaginable. Yet this is about how many kids die every year around the world from measles, polio, pneumonia and diarrhea, disease we can largely prevent by vaccines and for very little money. Still, despite great efforts, 1 in 5 kids around the world do not have access to vaccines. 

That’s why I take time out to advocate, remembering the mothers on the other side of the world who walk miles, hours, entire days, if they can, to get their babies immunized. I don’t often use this space to advocate beyond better news and information for parents. But protecting a child from disease shouldn’t be a luxury or choice.

The Fourth SHOT@LIFE SUMMIT: The new champion class of 2015 plus some familiar faces and veterans.

This week I had the honor of attending the fourth annual Shot@Life Summit in Washington, D.C. I’ve been a champion for the global vaccine campaign since its launch by the United Nations Foundation over four years ago. As many of you know, the Shot@Life mission is to raise awareness and funding for access to life-saving childhood vaccines in the developing world. 

Four years ago there were just fifty of us, maybe including the small full-time staff, huddled in a conference room. Now I’m happy to report there are over 600 champions.  Over four years we've helped raise over 3.5 million dollars, resulting in 15.8 million vaccines to kids in desperate need. That’s progress. Still a lot of children are at risk. Really and truly at risk and not just the over-hyped too common risks we US parents read in every other headline. 

Shot@Life Dir. Devi Thomas, Paralympian Dennis Ogbee
So I found myself on Capitol Hill asking my New Jersey congressman and two Senators to support funding for global childhood immunizations. Trust me, four years ago I didn’t think I’d ever be sitting across from Representative Leonard Lance talking about measles and polio. Or for that matter, anything else! He and the others I met with expressed their support for funding global immunizations and their concern over disease outbreaks. Senator Cory Booker, though new in D.C. has shown commitment to the cause. Senator Robert Menendez has been a long-time champion of global health and vaccines. They appeared keenly aware of the importance of eradicating these diseases around the world. I was proud to be a New Jerseyan. Really. You can quote me on that. 

Whether you’re from Jersey, California, or somewhere in between, or for that matter, Canada, yes, we have a champion or two up north, you can join us. I’d be glad to help you sign up or give you the inside scoop. Maybe even hold your hand (or hold on to you) next year outside a senate office, especially if there's another ice storm like the other day. 

I can also report that the Shot@Life champions, they will embrace you too and we're a lively, committed and diverse bunch. Pediatricians, teachers, authors, bloggers, nurses, engineers, Democrats, Republicans, Indepdendents, mothers, fathers, pharmacy students, polio survivors, athletes, at least one Paralympian. A few celebrities. We got it all. Along the way you’ll meet some incredibly inspiring people. This week I finally got to meet Paralympian Dennis Ogbee, also a Shot@Life champion and natural born storyteller who told of his youth in Nigeria where polio had paralyzed him. He’s walking, flourishing, today through his own remarkable strength and determination. Truly a “man of steel, heart of gold.” 

Andrea Riley, Rep. Adrian Smith (R-Neb.), Jo Frost 
Oh and Jo Frost, The Supernanny, she's a champion now. The celebrity child minder and parenting expert also attended the Summit this week and visited a few congressional and senate offices to champion global vaccine funding. For our purposes here at MommaData, I was heartened to hear her call out misinformation in the media (over vaccines) in a casual but impassionate speech. I heard her say “accurate” several times too. At the time I didn't write any of it down as I was busily stuffing paella into my mouth, without either pen or light. 

Fortunately someone from the Washington Post  caught similar comments she made the next day and wrote them down. And yes, in the Post photo accompanying the article that is my friend Andrea Riley and her congressman from Nebraska “getting schooled by the Supernanny” the next day at a reception. I took the picture above so it's not nearly as gripping or professional. 

Join up or learn more at

Friday, February 27, 2015

Landmark Peanut Allergy Study: The media is not impressed

Ground-breaking studies are rare. This is one of them. The first randomized trial of peanut consumption in infants at risk for peanut allergies (eczema, egg allergies). A study out of London provides the first strong evidence, experimental evidence, that eating peanuts early in life prevents peanut allergies. Half the kids received nuts between 4 and 11 months and continued eating them regularly (early exposure), the other half, no nuts at all (early avoidance). Later at age 5, children who ate nuts were significantly less likely to have a peanut allergy - only 2% became allergic, compared to 14% who avoided nuts.

Several years ago the current research team, led by Gideon Lack, found Jewish children raised in the UK had 10 times the rate of peanut allergies as Israeli children. The first group generally avoided nuts, the second, ate them as infants. The results got people wondering whether early avoidance was the wrong approach.

Huge implications here. HUGE.

The WHO recommends early avoidance of nuts. In 2000 the American Academy of Pediatrics started recommending children should delay eating nuts until age 3, those at most risk, not until age 8. Naturally, pregnant and breastfeeding women were also told not to eat nuts. Then in 2008 the AAP retracted its early avoidance recommendation citing a lack of evidence for its support. So the pediatric group now doesn't push early avoidance but it does not recommend early exposure as a prevention of allergies. Maybe it will soon. Some high-profile doctors are calling for immediate changes, namely testing at-risk infants for peanut allergies and for those not yet allergic, providing them with small doses of peanuts.

What a reversal. This kind of sweeping change does not often visit the parenting public, certainly not results with such life-altering consequences. Savor it. Relish it. Empirical evidence answering some very important questions.

This is a big moment. Big news. No, I am not being snide, I really mean big news this time.  

"This is a major study — really what we would call a landmark study," says Scott Sicherer, who advises the American Academy of Pediatrics on allergies. "There's been a huge question about why there's an increase in peanut allergy and what we can do to try to stem that increase. And this is a study that directly addresses that issue." NPR 
"For a study to show a benefit of this magnitude in the prevention of peanut allergy is without precedent. The results have the potential to transform how we approach food allergy prevention." Anthony S. Fauci, M.D., National Institute of Allergy and Infection Disease, Science  Daily
"This is transformational, it's the first time it's ever been done...Recent advances in research have shown that you can be desensitized once you have it. Up until now, there hasn't been any research on how to prevent it," says Dr. Lee Tak Hong, director of the Allergy Centre of the Hong Kong Sanatorium and Hospital. CNN

The media, of course,  responded to the enormity of the occasion:

Early Consumption May Prevent Peanut Allergies, New Study Suggests CNN 
Feeding Babies Foods With Peanuts Appears To Prevent Allergies NPR 
Feeding Infants Peanut Products Could Prevent Allergies, Study Suggest Well Blog, New York Times 
Eating Peanuts Early Could Prevent Allergy in Infants Yahoo News

 Could. May. Appears. Suggests. 

This was the moment, my dear headline writers, to pull out the causal language, the GROUDBREAKING STUDY - as opposed to the times writing about all those studies of questionable or limited societal or scientific import. You know, the ones that get the causal, dramatic treatment every other day. I mean, seriously, now you get hesitant? This is what happens when we become de-sensitized to dramatic news articles and headlines. If every study reportedly shows A Causes B, when the big study comes along showing A causes B, then people don't recognize it. The little studies start looking big and the big ones, not so great. Yikes. It might also be the case that given the gravitas of the study, the media chose to pull out the caution. I don't know. I wish I did. 

You can read the study for free right now at The New England Journal of Medicine.