The Vaccine Safety Debate: Journalism or Propaganda?

By Norma Erickson

Vaccine Debate: Journalism or Propaganda?

When it comes to the debate surrounding vaccine safety, efficacy and need, fair and balanced journalism may be a thing of the past.

In the 1920’s, American Philosopher John Dewey believed journalists should do more than simply pass on information. The Principles of Journalism for the 21st century clearly state that journalism’s first obligation is to the truth; its first loyalty is to its citizens. Do these principles apply to news reports on vaccine issues or, has the media fallen into the trap of simply passing on information?

According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, propaganda is “the spreading of ideas, information, or rumor (talk or opinion widely disseminated with no discernible source) for the purpose of helping or injuring an institution, a cause, or a person.” How prevalent is propaganda when it comes to ‘news reports’ about vaccine safety, efficacy and/or need?

In today’s fast paced, money driven world, the guiding principles of journalism appear to be largely a thing of the past. Consider the following categories of Journalistic Ethics Violations:

  • Misleading Definitions and Terminology – using terms and definitions in a way that implies accepted fact. No story is fair if it misleads or deceives the reader.
  • Imbalanced Reporting – choosing to report ‘certain’ stories over others, or to the exclusion of others, allows the media to control access to information and manipulate the public.
  • Opinions Disguised as News – Analysis and commentary are often misrepresented as facts. Facts are documentable, opinions are usually not.
  • Selective Omission – Failure to provide proper context, attribution and background information can dramatically distort the truth. No news story is fair if it omits facts of major importance or significance.
  • Distortion of Facts – usually a result of failure to verify information prior to publication.
  • Omission of Facts – failure to tell all of the truth, so far as it can be learned.
  • The Use of Unreliable Sources – conflicts of interest need to be disclosed, as well as source documents. Reports which omit these relevant facts should be suspect.
  • Misleading Headlines – using headlines and/or ‘teasers’ that have little or no relevance to the context of the publication/broadcast.
  • Unreported News

How many times have you seen ‘news reports’ that exhibit any of the above listed violations? More importantly, what can you do about these violations?

“Members of the Society of Professional Journalists believe that public enlightenment is the forerunner of justice and the foundation of democracy. The duty of the journalist is to further those ends by seeking truth and providing a fair and comprehensive account of events and issues. Conscientious journalists from all media and specialties strive to serve the public with thoroughness and honesty. Professional integrity is the cornerstone of a journalist’s credibility. Members of the Society share a dedication to ethical behavior and adopt this code to declare the Society’s principles and standards of practice.”

The time has come to hold the media accountable for violations of their own code of ethics. It’s easier than you may think. Simply use the following guidelines:

  1. Pay attention to the news via print, radio and television.
  2. When you see a news report that contains ethics violations, file an official letter of complaint. The Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics can be found here.
  3. Your letter should include an opening paragraph containing:
    1. Name of media outlet
    2. Name of the reporter/author
    3. Date and time of publication
    4. Internet link, if applicable
    5. Subsequent points should be made in order in which they appear in the program/media etc – state what was written or stated followed by your statement as to how/why this violates their code of ethics, for example:
      • Accuracy – any false statements
      • Balance – failure to give equal weight to opposing views
      • Failure to disclose conflicts of interest (media, reporter or expert quoted)
      • Using unpublished or undisclosed research
      • Failing to meet their own editorial standards (most media outlets have these standards available on their website)
    6. Tell them what you want them to do:
      • Retraction
      • Apology
      • Follow-up story presenting opposing viewpoint, etc…
      • Provide them with a specific date by which you expect a response
    7. Tell them what you plan to do if they do not respond, such as:
      • Contact local media watchdog organization
      • Contact their parent organization
      • Contact the Better Business Bureau
      • Contact the Federal Communications Commission (or other appropriate authority)
      • Contact government authorities
    8. Send your letter and follow-up as needed.

It has become painfully obvious that the traditional media is not going to live up to the standards they have set for themselves. No matter what the reason is for this lapse of ethics, you can do something about it. 

Do not sacrifice truth on the altar of inaction. Be aware – protect your right to fair, balanced and accurate news.


  1. Sandy Lunoe says:

    Important article giving excellent and sensible advice. This should be part of school education!

    When I contacted the Norwegian Journalist Association and asked them why all information published in the media about vaccines is unbalanced and biased they replied that their function is to publish “the facts”.

    I wrote back and drew attention to the situation that the health authorities, who have the monopoly for information about vaccines admit to having close connections with the pharmaceutical industry and I asked if journalists took this into account. They did not answer.

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