Cervical cancer jab: how the newspapers have learned nothing from MMR

The UK media have learned nothing from the debacle over the MMR vaccine – where they relentlessly covered stories doubting the safety of MMR, putting the lives of children at risk (this is cross-posted from my blog).

They are continuing their habit of undermining public-health initiatives with their latest scare story about the safety of the cervical cancer jab, after the tragic death of a schoolgirl who had the vaccine the same day.

I’ve given each of the mainstream media an irresponsibility rating below – the Mail and Express are the worst scaremongers, followed by the Mirror and Times.

It’s calculated as follows:

  • A headline suggesting a causal link between the vaccine and the girl’s death – there is no evidence of this so far, the two events just occurred on the same day: 20 points
  • The use of a photo or words in the headline casting doubt on the safety of the vaccine itself (as opposed to, say, this being a one-off allergic reaction): 20 points
  • Calls for the vaccine to be banned: 20 points
  • No mention of how many lives the vaccine will save: 20 points.
  • Separate comment piece doubting the safety of the vaccine, or emphasis of other stories about vaccine problems: 10 points
  • Ill-informed user comments adding to the suggestion of unsafety. 10 points

Daily Mail: 90% irresponsible

Headline: First picture of girl, 14, who died after being injected with cervical cancer jab from ‘rogue batch’

  • The headline suggests a causal link. It makes claims of a ‘rogue batch’ in quotes where the only use of those words in the story are the journalist’s own.
  • It’s running a poll: “Should the cervical cancer vaccination be suspended”.
  • There are a lot of figures about side effects – no mention of actual lives saved.
  • The best rated comment is currently “Chemical experiments on our children.” The worst rated is “Many more deaths may occur without the vaccine to guard against HPV.” The comments section is appalling, frankly – full of ill-informed anti-vaccine scaremongering.

Express: 80% irresponsible

Headline: Girl, 14, dies after taking cervical cancer vaccine

  • The story, illustrated with a picture of someone being vaccinated, says the death comes after “months of concern over the vaccine”.
  • It quotes a “campaign group for safe vaccinations” calling for immediate withdrawal of the vaccine.
  • Terrible, irresponsible journalism. I hope the two journalists, Natalie Fahy and Sara Dixon, are ashamed of themselves.

The Mirror: 60% irresponsible

Headline: 14 year old girl dies after cervical cancer jab

  • The Mirror’s story is fairly short. The headline suggests a causal link, but the story is fairly balanced although the number of lives saved isn’t given.
  • However, the story is described as ‘jab death’ on the Mirror home page. Given we are talking about a young girl’s death, this is tabloidese at its most nauseating.

Independent: 50% irresponsible

Headline: Teenage girl dies after cervical cancer jab

  • The headline suggests a causal link, although the story makes clear there isn’t one. It doesn’t say how many lives the vaccine will save, however.
  • One of the two user comments (from someone who is clearly deluded about the media’s position) says: “In my opinion vaccinations are NOT benign & injecting our children with 35 different vaccinations before the age of 5 is very foolish. The media are complicit in the ‘vaccinations are perfectly safe’ mantra.”

The Sun: 40% irresponsible

Headline: Girl, 14, dies after cervical cancer jab

  • Again, a causal link is suggested by the headline, although the story is fairly balanced, even though it doesn’t mention the number of lives saved.
  • The user comments are restrained and even, can I say, thoughtful.

Times: 30% irresponsible

Headline: Schoolgirl dies after being given cervical cancer jab

  • The headline suggests a causal link, even though the story makes it clear there isn’t one established. The piece is, however, fairly factual about the benefits and risks.
  • However, the story is linked to another case where a girl suffered a mystery illness after the jab, with the mother claiming there is ‘a serious problem with these injections’.
  • There is one comment that says: “What is in this vaccine as they never say?? The h1n1 vaccine has squalene and mercury in it FACT !! This causes cancer and brain damage and the government have made the makers immune to prosecution WHY??”. Another comment from a father whose daughter has developed pre-cancerous cells age 14 says “The press are attributing the tragic death of this young girl to the HPV vaccine. Scare mongering and speculation. It is for the coroner to determine the cause of death not Fleet Street. I wouldn’t wish our last year on my worst enemy, so please parents, don’t let this tragic incident cloud your judgement, sign the consent forms.”
  • I’ve edited this to make the Times only 30% irresponsible (rather than the original 50%) as it also ran a piece called “Benefits of cervical cancer vaccinations will far outweigh the risks“.

The Guardian: 30% irresponsible

Headline: Schoolgirl dies after cervical cancer vaccination

  • Despite this headline, the Guardian story makes it clear that there is no link yet between the vaccine and her death, and points out its benefit.
  • However, it has run a separate comment piece claiming ‘confidence will plunge if no answer is found’. This is a self-fulfilling prophecy if the media report the story like this.

Telegraph: 20% irresponsible

Headline: Tributes to 14-year-old schoolgirl who died after being given cervical cancer jab

  • The headline suggests a causal link, but otherwise the story is fair and mostly concentrates on reaction to the young girl’s death.

If you’re all appalled by this as me, why not vote in the Daily Mail’s poll to keep the vaccine program going? Or you can follow me on Twitter.

7 thoughts on “Cervical cancer jab: how the newspapers have learned nothing from MMR

  1. paul canning

    There’s got to be some way to stop the Mail, to frighten them into thinking again before the run this sh*t again. Are the journalists in the NUJ? Don’t they have some sort of rules being broken here? Can’t they put them on the rack or waterboard them?

  2. Cathy

    I think it’s unfair not to point out that The Times ran a second article on the next page saying “There will always be tragedies, but this vaccine will save thousands of lives”

    Having said that- an accountability barometer is a great idea and would love to see something like that on the NHS choices service.

  3. ana

    BBC Front desk, worldwide edition RSS feed:
    “Schoolgirl dies after cancer jab
    A 14-year-old girl in Coventry has died shortly after being given a cervical cancer vaccine.”

    lead on the article page reads that “the exact cause of death is unknown.” But I had to go to the page to find out.

    I work as a journalist – if i’m ever tempted to grab attention like this i’ll consider cutting off one or two of my fingers (and I’m young, so this is for years to come).

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