Sensationalism in the News: How Inacurate Portrayals of Scientific Research Can Harm Public Health

by 123456 on March 28, 2015 - 9:39pm

Sensationalism in the news media is a serious problem because it undermines readers’ ability to think critically about the information they are absorbing. It is particularly dangerous when the articles discuss research in health-science related fields as these articles can have a direct link to the readers’ decisions regarding their health. The media  portrayal of the erroneous research done by Wakefield and his colleagues regarding the link between autism and the measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine is a prime example of sensationalist news articles misleading public opinion on health-related issues.

In 1998, after a decade of publishing erroneous studies linking measles and measles vaccines to Crohn’s disease, Wakefield published an article in the Lancet that claimed to prove that the MMR vaccine leads to a bowel disease that allows autism-causing toxins to infiltrate the body (Gorski). A link to the abstract of the now-retracted article is found below.

Despite having been published in a well-reputed scientific magazine, the article was based on research that does not follow current scientific standards. For example, the children tested were not randomly chosen but were in fact children who were already believed by their parents to have developed autism due to the MMR vaccination. (Snyder) This non-random choosing of a sample creates selection bias and cannot lead to creditable scientific conclusions.

However, the major problem with Wakefield’s findings is not his dubious scientific techniques, but is rather the fraudulent nature of his research. In fact, Wakefield was paid by a lawyer who represented a handful of families who, believing that their children’s autism onset had been caused by the MMR vaccine, were prosecuting vaccine manufactures (Gorski). Furthermore, Wakefield has been accused of manipulating and distorting his data, as well as having a personal interest in discrediting the MMR vaccine after having developed a supposedly safer measles vaccine. (Gorski)

What turns this fraud case into a media ethics debate is the fact that the news media have been widely used to propone Wakefield’s claims through overly-sensationalist articles. Celebrities, most famously Jenny McCarthy, have spread Wakefield’s erroneous research through the news media even after Wakefield was discredited. For example, in 2010, McCarthy published a statement in Age of Autism, a web newspaper, stating that Wakefield was subject to a “remarkable media campaign engineered by vaccine manufacturers” (McCarthy) and that “over-vaccination of young children is leading to neurological damage, including autism” (McCarthy). The logic in her article is shaky. She confuses causation and correlation by using the fact that both the number of autism diagnostics and the number of recommended child vaccines have increased over the years to defend Wakefield’s research that states that the former is caused by the latter(McCarthy). She also uses the fact that Wakefield published many articles in scientific papers to support his credibility (McCarthy), but she does not mention that a number of these studies were later proved erroneous (Gorski). To make up for this lack of logical structure in her arguments, McCarthy appeals to the readers’ emotions, thus making her article sensational rather than informative. In fact, she predicts “stark and devastating” (McCarthy) results in future research studying the link between the MMR vaccines and autism and defends Wakefield because his work has stopped “pain and suffering” (McCarthy) in children.

Other articles in various online newspapers confuse causation with correlation, giving the public a distorted perception of the dangers of the MMR vaccine. For example, in a 2007 article, the MMR vaccine is proclaimed to be a cause of brain-inflammation because, out of five children diagnosed with the inflammation, four of the inflammation onsets “definitely followed the use of vaccine containing Urabe mumps virus and the fifth probably did” (Johnston). Such mishandling of information becomes obvious once the text is critically analyzed. However, the sensationalism in the article covers this lack of logical reasoning. For example, the writer alludes to “very powerful people in positions of great authority” (Johnston) who have an interest in keeping MMR on the market. However, she does not give concrete examples of who these people are and why they want MMR to remain on the market. This lack of information creates a vague sense of conspiracy which promotes fear in the readers, thus limiting their ability to read the text critically.

Such news articles do not live up to the deontological standard of Western journalistic values. They are inaccurate because they misrepresent information by presenting correlation as causation, they are unclear because their arguments are overshadowed by emotionally-charged language, and they present non-justifiable facts by claiming that Wakefield’s findings are accurate when no other scientific team has been able to replicate his experiment (Gorski). Furthermore, the information these articles contain is harmful to society because it has caused parents to refuse MMR vaccination for their children. These decisions have led to measles outbreaks in Great Britain, Canada, and the United States (Rao).

Whatever their intentions, these articles do not promote the greater good for the greatest amount of people, so they cannot be considered morally sound according to utilitarian principles. In fact, by bringing erroneous scientific research to the public’s attention and by presenting this information as accurate, they are in part responsible, as discussed above, for measles outbreaks in both North America and Europe. No large group of people benefits from the articles: the affected children, of course, suffer, while their parents, who want the best for their children’s health, are tormented by doubt concerning their decision to refuse vaccination as they watch their children fight against a potentially deadly disease.

Because sensational news articles discussing health-science related research distort public opinion and potentially harm public health, they are not morally justified by utilitarian ethics. The fact that they lack accuracy and harm public health means that they do not follow the deontological rules of journalistic ethics. A prime example of the dangers of sensationalizing scientific findings is the outbreak of measles following the spread of misinformation concerning the vaccine’s possible link to autism.

Linked articles:

Abstract of Wakefield’s retracted article in the Lancet:

McCarthy’s advocacy for Wakefield’s research: article against MMR vaccine:

Works cited:

Gorski, David. "Antivaccine Hero Andrew Wakefield: Scientific Fraud?" Science-Based Medicine. N.p., 08 Feb. 2009. Web. 28 Mar. 2015.

Johnston, Lucy. "Dangers of MMR Jab 'covered Up'" Express., 15 July 2007. Web. 28 Mar. 2015.

McCarthy, Jenny, and Jim Carry. "A Statement from Jenny McCarthy & Jim Carrey: Andrew Wakefield, Scientific Censorship, and Fourteen Monkeys - AGE OF AUTISM." AGE OF AUTISM. N.p., 5 Feb. 2010. Web. 28 Mar. 2015.

Rao, T. S. Sathyanarayana, and Chittaranjan Andrade. "The MMR Vaccine and Autism: Sensation, Refutation, Retraction, and Fraud." Indian Journal of Psychiatry (2011): 95-96. National Center for Biotechnology Information. Web. 28 Mar. 2015.

Snyder, John. "Vaccines and the Media: No Room for Balance." Science-Based Medicine. N.p., 02 Sept. 2009. Web. 28 Mar. 2015.


Dear 123456,

I am very impressed by your latest post, which provides a well-supported, ethical analysis of the issue of sensationalism in the news media. Essentially, through the critique of multiple sensationalist reports written about Wakefield’s inaccurate findings, you have clearly shown that sensationalism in the news media proves immoral. In general, from a deontological perspective, I most definitely agree with your conception that sensationalism in the news media is immoral because sensationalism escapes the notion of truth; thus, in the context of journalism, sensationalism violates the media’s responsibility to be accurate. This lack of accuracy is evidenced by the sensationalist reports written about Wakefield’s findings, in which the authors try to generate a buzz by wrongly reporting that there exists a link between autism and the measles, mumps, and rubella disease. Moreover, in general, from a utilitarian perspective this time, I further agree with your conception that sensationalism in the news media is immoral because sensationalism creates the potential for harm to society. This potential for harm is also evidenced by the sensationalist reports written about Wakefield’s findings, which encourage people not to get vaccinated and, thus, expose them to disease. Ultimately, I agree with your assessment that sensationalism in the news media is wrong. Overall, you have done a good job evaluating this topic through the perspectives of deontology and utilitarianism. Keep up the good work!