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How media savvy doctors took the Toronto Star to task on HPV vaccine Gardasil

by | Apr 15, 2015 | Uncategorized

Newspapers are an important element to a healthy and free society — they’re the vanguards of truth, and credibility is at the heart of that truth.

When newspapers make mistakes in regards to facts, they can have far reaching consequences to society by providing misinformation that can adversely influence people. Sometimes, news organizations need to take extra steps to right a wrong.

On February 5, the Toronto Star unfortunately made such a mistake.

As the link above shows, the outlet retracted an investigative article almost two weeks after its publication, replacing it with an apology from the publisher.

The article, “HPV vaccine Gardasil has a dark side, Star investigation finds”, written by investigative reporters David Bruser and Jesse McLean, upset many people in the medical and scientific community.

Dr. Jen Gunter, who practices medicine in the San Francisco Bay area and is also an author and blogger, wrote a blog post criticizing the Toronto Star’s article, “Toronto Star claims HPV vaccine unsafe. Science says the Toronto Star is wrong.”

The CBC’s radio show, As it Happens, which coincidentally had been covering other anti-vaccination stories at the time, to Dr. Gunter for further clarification.

The story had now become the issue. And the scientific community’s reaction — along with social media, and now broadcast and other print media — started to take the Star to task over the article.

At first the paper stood by their reporters and the story. Columnist Heather Mallick and editor-in-chief Michael Cooke’s support of the story and reaction to the criticism did not help the situation.

But soon the facts and the pressure forced the Toronto Star to rethink its position.

Doctors Juliet Guichon and Rupert Kaul wrote an opinion article in the Toronto Star on February 11, which refuted the original article by Bruser and McLean.

http://www.thestar.com/opinion/commentary/2015/02/11/science-shows-hpv-vaccine-has-no-dark-side.html

On the same day, Toronto Star publisher John Cruickshank acknowledged the Star’s original story had been in error.

Two days later the Toronto Star’s public editor, Kathy English, supported Cruickshank’s acknowledgment in her own article.

By February 20, the article had been removed from the Star’s website and other TorStar publications and replaced by the note from the editor.

But the potential damage of the original article went beyond the Star’s reputation, or the vaccine Gardasil and drug company Merck.

At first, the article seemed to give credibility to the so-called anti-vaxxer movement, so the stakes were high — especially since the Toronto Star is an extremely influential publication.

The medical and scientific’s community’s reaction, however, was swift. In the end, they potentially averted a serious public health issue created by the media and were able to educate the public while doing so.

The Toronto Star’s initial article and its handling of the story was widely criticized not only on social media, but also in articles from other media outlets around the world including the Huffington Post, VOX and the LA Times.

But in the end, the Toronto Star did the right thing by admitting and correcting its mistake. And because of the media savviness of individuals in the medical community, we live in a slightly safer and more educated world.

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Brett Serjeantson

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