Information overload, emotionally aroused brains and the practice of journalism.

Political scientist Markus Prior claims that “the share of politically uninformed people has risen since we entered the so-called information age”. Prior’s analysis is cited in What is Happening to News, a book authored by veteran newspaperman Jack Fuller, in which he tackles the current crisis in journalism. According to Fuller, journalism is important and is responsible for informing us about our world.

Fuller discusses the current media landscape where large numbers of the public are deserting the traditional forms of print media, news and current affairs programs. He claims that with the advent of cable television and the internet, media consumers are easily distracted and are avoiding hard news and current affairs, leading to a less informed populace.

His research delves into the realms of neuroscience showing how our brains are being ‘inundated’ with ‘messages from everywhere’ which ‘pound away at the senses, trying to force their way into our ancient brain’. Information overload, work pressures and multi- tasking result in an ‘emotionally aroused brain’ that is more amenable to sensational news coverage, or to having a comedian presenting the nightly news.

We pour over the clever headlines, skim the scant paragraphs and due to multitude demands on our time, neglect to check the article’s veracity or otherwise. A recent story published in the Herald Sun reported that the health department was extending its free parent whooping cough vaccination program due to a huge increase in the number of children coming down with the disease. The brief report in the Herald Sun included a stock photo of a distressed child requiring a breathing mask and feeding tube strategically placed above the report, arousing our emotions but sadly not awakening the sceptic within.

Blogger Meryl Dorey claims that the media’s reporting on the issue of vaccination lacks facts and that decisions to vaccinate need to be made based on scientific research. According to the Herald Sun report, cases of childhood whooping cough are rising with 5500 cases reported in Victoria for the year 2010.

This very short article urges parents to avail themselves of the offer of a free whooping cough vaccine in order to protect their child from getting the disease. But it fails to mention that 95% of children are vaccinated against it anyway. Max Laughton, the author of the article Extra jabs for whooping cough has omitted many relevant facts and trends regarding the contentious issue of vaccination. For example, in the year 1991, 71% of Australian children were vaccinated with the whooping cough vaccine and 318 cases of the disease were reported. In 2009, with 95% of children vaccinated there were 30,000 cases reported. This report needs to ask why inspite of the current high vaccination rates there is an increase in the cases of children with whooping cough. It also needs to raise questions about the effectiveness of the vaccine.

“The increase in the incidence of whooping cough is not just happening in Victoria,” says Meryl Dorey, who also runs the Australian Vaccination Network. “This is happening around the country and across the world- wherever the vaccination is being used. Rates of vaccination have never been as high as now and yet we had 30,000 cases of whooping cough in Australia last year. I just don’t believe that the whooping cough vaccine gives immunity,” says Dorey.

Dorey believes that it is very irresponsible for the health department to just tell people to have this vaccine because its use hasn’t been studied in groups such as the elderly. “The AVN says that before you make any decision about vaccination you should be fully informed about the treatment and its effects,” added Dorey.

Informing the public about the risks associated with vaccination wins you few friends as Meryl Dorey discovered when a complaint made about the AVN’s practices led to the activist group being stripped of its charitable status. But inspite of her considerable setbacks the health activist continues to inform parents of their rights to question vaccination.

The Herald Sun as Australia’s biggest selling daily newspaper with more than 1.5 million Victorian daily readers owes its readers more than mere sensationalism. Author of What is Happening to News, Jack Fuller describes ‘the social mission of journalism’ as ‘the courage to gather and disseminate information when powerful people and institutions do not want the information known’.

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9 Comments

  1. ‘Blogger Meryl Dorey claims that the media’s reporting on the issue of vaccination lacks facts and that decisions to vaccinate need to be made based on scientific research’

    Meryl Dorey is the last person who should lecture others on the use of facts. The New South Wales Healthcare Complaints Commission found that her organisation, the Australian Vaccination Network:

    * provides information that is solely anti-vaccination
    * contains information that is incorrect and misleading
    * quotes selectively from research to suggest that vaccination may be dangerous.

    Reply
  2. ausduck

     /  January 6, 2011

    I am disappointed that this blog post utilises the information from a woman and organisation who has not only been ‘stripped of it’s charitable status’ (a decision that is under appeal) but is awaiting further deliberation from the NSW Department of Justice/Attorney General as to what actions shall be taken from breaches of the NSW Charities Act that were found during the extensive investigation undertaken by the NSW Office of Liquor, Gaming and Racing in response to several complaints. http://www.olgr.nsw.gov.au/charitable_latest_news.asp
    Meryl Dorey and the AVN were also the subject of an extensive investigation by the NSW Health Care Complaints Commission, who state: “The Commission recognises that it is important for there to be debate on the issue of vaccination. However, the AVN provides information that is inaccurate and misleading.” One of the areas that Ms Dorey is constantly called on is in her interpretation of statistics. The Commission has issued a public warning about the AVN as they pose a risk to public health and safety. This is no small matter. http://www.hccc.nsw.gov.au/Publications/Media-Releases/PUBLIC-WARNING-/default.aspx
    If you are choosing the emotive underpinnings of articles on whooping cough vaccination to illustrate a point then that cuts both ways. The AVN are very good at using the emotive underpinnings themselves – their slogan of “Love them, protect them, NEVER inject them” with a picture of a large, vicious looking needle and syringe ( the volume and needle size would never ever be used on a baby during vaccination) for example, or using images of an obviously distressed baby/child receiving an injection presumed to be a vaccination – how is this different to the Herald Sun article?
    Oh, and a word on Ms Dorey’s claim re the vaccination statistics and whooping cough. Vaccination rates quoted are for children. The vaccination in the article is for adults. It is well recognised now (plenty of articles/science blogs on the subject that can be googled) that childhood vaccination does not infer life long immunity and a booster is required for adults in order to ensure the protection of the very vulnerable newborns. It is not as simple as Ms Dorey makes it out to be with her conflation of statistics.

    Reply
  3. Ken McLeod

     /  January 6, 2011

    I wholeheartedly agree with the proposition that the general population are being poorly served by today’s journalists. See “Flat earth News” by Nick Davies (Vintage Books 2009) for a complete study of why this is so.

    However, I must point out that you have chosen an inappropriate example, in the Herald – Sun article on Whooping Cough. That was indeed a good article on a complicated subject. The fact is that no vaccine is perfect, and the vaccine being used today for Whooping Cough is not perfect. In fact, (launching into philosophy) no human endeavour has perfect results. No Boeing 747 has every component in absolute perfect condition before takeoff, but we all happy to flit off to Paris on one at every opportunity. It is a matter of balancing risks against benefits.

    In the case of Whooping Cough (Pertussis) vaccination, the benefits far outweigh the risks, and the risks of failing to vaccinate are dire. Much of the current Whooping Cough epidemic may be laid at the door of the so-called Australian (anti-) Vaccination Network and its occasional President Meryl Dorey, with their continuous anti-vaccination propaganda. Readers might not be aware that she has absolutely no experience or qualifiactions whatever, except for claiming to “have a brain.”

    She is the most inappropriate source for information, see http://www.ratbags.com/rsoles/history/2010/12decembera.htm#18avn

    Reply
  4. ray dimitroff

     /  January 8, 2011

    Great article It challenges the reader to be skeptical and seriously consider
    the merits of any vaccination. Journalism needs to inspire serious thinking
    and not just bombard the reader with sensationalism and manipulate

    Reply
  5. Rohan Gaiswinkler

     /  January 9, 2011

    Meryl Dorey’s nonsense is a part of this dumbdown you so elequently describe in your first paragraphs [up to the words “Blogger Meryl Dorey”]. This assumption you make that Meryl Dorey is a campainger for a different side of the truth appears just as the news of Wakefield’s final downfall filters through the blogosphere and also of Dorey’s continued defence of him. Reconsider perhaps?

    Reply
    • No need for me to reconsider. But why are so many people so hellbent on destroying those such as Dorey and Wakefield who question the practice of vaccination? What is the witch hunt all about?
      Wakefield did not tell people not to vaccinate but he questioned the multi vaccinations such as the MMR and suggested a better way to go is to split up the dose into individual shots.

      Reply
      • Rohan Gaiswinkler

         /  January 12, 2011

        “But why are so many people so hellbent on destroying those such as Dorey and Wakefield who question the practice of vaccination? What is the witch hunt all about?”

        It’s about saving lives by stamping out of the flow of dangerous misinformation that is spread by self-aggrandising zealots hide under the cover free speech. Is this a complicated concept for you to grasp?

      • Matt Moore

         /  January 31, 2011

        More and more evidence is coming to light that Wakefield’s publications were a serious misrepresentation of his research. He is either an incompetent or a fraud. As a result of these publications and the subsequent tabloid press hysteria (it would be unfair to blame only Wakefield for the events that followed), vaccination levels in the UK dropped and children almost certainly died unnecessarily.

        Dorey routinely misrepresents medical research concerning vaccination. She is entitled to her beliefs but her actions have real-world consequences.

  6. Rohan Gaiswinkler

     /  January 12, 2011

    “But why are so many people so hellbent on destroying those such as Dorey and Wakefield who question the practice of vaccination? What is the witch hunt all about?”

    It’s about saving lives by stamping out of the flow of dangerous misinformation that is spread by self-aggrandising zealots who hide under the cover free speech. Is this a complicated concept for you to grasp?

    Reply

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