I am not an investigative reporter, and don't even think of myself as a "citizen journalist". But maybe I could give lessons in investigation.
Sharyl Attkisson has been a reporter at CBS for 15 years; her current title is "investigative reporter" and her area is "government spending and taxpayer issues". However, she has also aired some stories on the disproven hypothesis that there is a connection between vaccination and autism. Ms. Attkisson's pieces tend to perpetuate the mistaken idea that there is a connection (here and here, for example)--sufficiently biased to label Ms. Attkisson as a vaccine rejectionist.
Recently, Attkisson's journalistic objectivity, diligence in investigation, and use of sources have been called into question.
The Society for Professional Journalism's Code of Ethics reads in part:
- Test the accuracy of information from all sources and exercise care to avoid inadvertent error. Deliberate distortion is never permissible.
- Diligently seek out subjects of news stories to give them the opportunity to respond to allegations of wrongdoing.
- Identify sources whenever feasible. The public is entitled to as much information as possible on sources' reliability.
- Distinguish between advocacy and news reporting. Analysis and commentary should be labeled and not misrepresent fact or context.
Part One of Attkisson's questionable journalistic ethics: the content and tone of the July 25, 2008 piece, "How Independent Are Vaccine Defenders?"
Part Two of Attkisson's questionable journalistic ethics: the almost simultaneous transmission of a letter of protest from the director of Voices for Vaccines to CBS and the publication of the contents of said letter on a militantly anti-vaccination website, Age of Autism. (You can download V4V_to_CBS_retraction_demand.pdf by clicking on the link.)
My question is: how much of Attkisson's "investigating" consists of rewriting and rewording statements from principals at the advocacy--even propaganda--organization, Age of Autism?
Part One, Con't:
On July 25, 2008, CBS aired Attkisson's latest: "How Independent Are Vaccine Defenders?", which included innuendos that Paul Offit (a co-inventor of the RotaTeq oral vaccine) has profited hugely from the patent, and therefore (a) he has an undisclosed conflict of interest (COI) and (b) Offit's objectivity on the subject of vaccination in general is suspect.
Much of what Attkisson reported about Offit had been previously published--some on the Age of Autism site. A simple Google search on the AoA site revealed many posts directly attacking Offit's integrity and objectivity, using data similar to Attkisson's.
As Autism News Beat responded: CBS News unearths evidence that people are paid for work.
Attkisson made much of Offit holding an "endowed chair" funded (in part) by a drug company. She was inaccurate about the amount of the endowment (alleging $1.5 million, instead of the actual $2 million endowment). One of Orac's commenters clarified the issue as follows:
An endowed chair gives a researcher a constant supply of funding without he need to write grant proposals. It allows the researcher to work on very self-directed projects and do more exploratory work.
The chair endowment is held by the institution (CHOP and Penn in this case) not the professor. So, Dr. Offit doesn't have $1.5M (or, $2M as those interested in accuracy have noted) to work with. He has the proceeds of this endowment. Think of it as a trust fund for the researcher---she/he can't touch the principal. Also, the institution controls the endowment and who gets the chair after the professor (Dr. Offit in this case) steps down or retires. They have to follow the restrictions of the endowment--which likely stipulate that a vaccine researcher gets the money--but Merck is likely not involved directly in deciding future chair holders.
Also note that the endowed chair was created in 2005--after Dr. Offit's vaccine was patented and put to use. So, it couldn't have influenced his actions to create the vaccine. Also, since the endowment is already in place, it doesn't affect Dr. Offit's decision to speak out in favor of vaccine safety. He could say vaccines are evil and Merck wouldn't be able to do anything about the chair.
Is it any shock to anyone that a man who spent 25 years developing a vaccine would think that vaccines are safe?
I spent about 120 seconds looking for the announcement of the chair's establishment. That's all it took to find that the Merck foundation funded 3/4 of the chair ($1.5 million) and the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) contributed the other 1/4, as the press release announcing the endowment's creation revealed.
The Hilleman Chair will accelerate the pace of vaccine research at the University of Pennsylvania. The Merck Company Foundation will provide a $1.5 million endowment, which will be held jointly by University of Pennsylvania and CHOP. CHOP will contribute $500,000 in matching funds, bringing the total endowment to $2 million.
Attkisson ended her attack on Offit's integrity with the following innuendo:
And future royalties for the vaccine were just sold for $182 million cash. Dr. Offit's share of vaccine profits? Unknown.
I was curious about Attkisson's allegations about Offit's share in future profits from Rotateq, so I went to the United States Patent Database, and found that Dr. Offit does not, in fact, control the patent or its revenues. (Note: I'd never used the database before, and it took me a whopping 90 seconds to the relevant record. I am guessing that Attkisson didn't even try).
Inventors: Clark; H Fred (Philadelphia, PA), Offit; Paul (Philadelphia, PA), Plotkin; Stanley A. (Doylestown, PA)
Assignee: The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia "CHOP" (Philadelphia, PA); The Winstar Institute of Anatomy and Biology "WIAB" (Philadelphia, PA)
Maybe I know more about patents, because I live in Silicon Valley and know folks who hold one or more, but it was obvious to me after the search that Offit may not see any of the futures revenue. People who develop a patentable idea (in this case, the Rotateq vaccine) are typically an employee of an enterprise. The terms of the employee's employment contract typically assigns any patentable discoveries to the enterprise (in this case, CHOP and WIAB). Depending upon the wording of the employment contract, there may or may not be a sharing of income from licensing that is done by the patent assignees.
Part Two, Con't:
This morning (July 31, 2008) Lisa Randall, the Interim Executive Director for Voices for Vaccines, sent a letter addressed to Katie Couric as Managing Editor of the CBS television network, via fax and email. Copies of the letter were sent to Attkisson, her producer, and CBS's medical correspondent.
The closing paragraph of the letter reads:
We call upon CBS to issue a retraction of Ms. Attkisson's report and an apology to the individuals and institutions whose good and honorable work in the field of immunization has been smeared. We further ask CBS to reflect upon the fact that it does not befit a user of the public airwaves to broadcast misleading claims aobut the most important public health measure of our time.
Within hours--perhaps minutes-- after Randall sent the letter, Kim Stagliano at Age of Autism site had a copy of the letter, which she reposted in full, and went on to repeat previous Age of Autism attacks on both Randall's integrity and that of Voices for Vaccine's parent body, the Taskforce for Child Survival and Development
What I have done:
- Written this blog post
- Posted a comment at Age of Autism, indicating my disgust with AoA tactics caused me to donate both to the Immunization Action Coalition and Voices for Vaccines (go here to donate to V4V via the Taskforce for Child Survival --put "donation for V4V" in the message box )
- Sent a stiffly-worded feedback message to CBS Evening News (if you'd like to join me, go CBS Evening News homepage, scroll down to the bottom of the page, and click on "contact us").
- Told my friends about this blot on journalistic ethics.
Sources defending Dr. Offit's integrity and the value of vaccination: (note I have sometimes re-worded titles)
- Autism News Beat: CBS unearths evidence that people are paid to work (July 26, 2008)
- Orac at Respectful Insolence on More biased "journalism" about Vaccines (July 28, 2008)
- Orac at Respectful Insolence on Large errors in the Wall Street Journal's Health Blog (July 29, 2008)
- Kevin Leitch at LeftBrain/RightBrain: Vaccine defenders have conflicts of interest? Why aren't there investigative reports on about conflicts of interest among anti-vaccination activists? (July 28, 2008)
- Mike Stanton at Action for Autism: The Unjustified Abuse of Paul Offit (July 31, 2008)
- Mike Stanton at Action for Autism: Voices for Vaccines Reply to CBS (August 1, 2008)
- Autism News Beat: Dear CBS Evening News (July 31, 2008)
Sources attacking Dr. Offit, declaring vaccines dangerous
- Age of Autism, CBS News Targets Dr. Paul Offit, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and Every Child By Two July 25, 2008
- Kim Stagliano at Age of Autism: Vaccine Industry Group Calls on Couric and Attkisson for CBS Retraction
- Washington State Senator Eric Oemig, and anti-vaccination activist at Senate Scroll: CBS News provides common sense and scientific look at vaccines, July 25, 2008
- Joint press release from the Merck Foundation, CHOP, and the University of Pennsylvania announcing the establishment of the Hillemann Chair in Vaccinology, March 22, 2005
- Faculty Biosketch, University of Pennsylvania: Paul A. Offit
- The PathGuy: The Anti-Immunization Activists: A Pattern of Deception
- The Taskforce for Child Survival and Development
Paul Offit's official website