‘He Said/She Said’ Journalism: A Growing Threat to Public Health
The recent announcement that actress Jenny McCarthy is replacing Elisabeth Hasselbeck on the popular ABC morning talk show The View has sparked an intense wave of backlash.
The problem is that after McCarthy's son was diagnosed with autism, she became convinced it was because of the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine, and over the last several years she has reinvented herself as the leading celebrity voice of the anti-vaccine movement. Although the study that originally sparked the MMR vaccine-childhood autism panic has since been completely discredited, many parents have stopped vaccinating their children, in part because of anti-vaccine advocacy carried out by McCarthy and others. As a result, measles cases have spiked in recent years.
Critics say that McCarthy's anti-science views are a public health hazard, and giving her a platform, on a morning talk show or in other media outlets, legitimizes her view. For instance, "Larry King had [McCarthy] debate a doctor, as though her disproven ideas should be given the same equivalence as those of a medical expert," The Nation editor and publisher Katrina vanden Heuvel wrote recently, adding, "False equivalency is one of journalism's great pitfalls, and in an effort to achieve 'balance,' reporters often obscure the truth." As Brendan Nyhan, writing at the Columbia Journalism Review, argued, uncritically repeating discredited statements just amplifies the spread of misinformation.
False equivalence is the worst of what New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen and others have called "he said/she said" journalism. It takes much less time—and subject expertise—to frame a story as a "controversy" than to give it informative context. (Not to mention that a non-scientific minority opposition to the vetted facts does not qualify as a "controversy.")
When it comes to covering health and science, the "he said/she said" short-cut is downright dangerous.
It's unfortunate then that media coverage of reproductive health issues often falls into this trap as well.
Hasselbeck, the former Survivor contestant whom McCarthy will replace, once argued to one of her co-hosts on The View that taking the morning-after pill is "the same thing as birthing a baby and leaving it out in the street." She said that she believes emergency contraception (EC) disrupts a pregnancy. In fact, EC prevents ovulation from occurring, preventing fertilization in the first place.
Yet there was relatively little outrage over Hasselbeck's remark or the dispute, which was described in many outlets, as usual, as a "cat fight" between hosts.
When it comes to reproductive health, we have a much higher tolerance for hearing anti-science beliefs with serious public health consequences. Of the many fake-science falsehoods published every day on reproductive health issues, only the most obvious draws McCarthy-level heat. Most memorable is the belief, shared by an ever-expanding number of lawmakers, that women's bodies contain magic lady-venom to prevent pregnancy in cases of rape.
While these legislators draw much deserved public ridicule, it's the less obvious anti-science and evidence-free statements published every day that are most dangerous.