What’s in Your Newspaper?

Poor journalism drives me up the wall. As a Vancouverite I’m often left speechless at the level of journalistic integrity I encounter in my city and province.

For those of you who are wondering journalistic integrity basically amounts to doing due diligence on the facts. Reporting on issues that of importance to the reader and presenting that material accurately and with little or no personal bias. That’s a water-downed definition and someone more inclined could come up with a better one but lets start with a low bar.

While I could come up with a list of questionable reporting by British Columbia’s corporate newspapers I’m going to reserve most of my post for the Georgia Straight.

To unfamiliar readers, The Georgia Straight is an independent newspaper that’s published here in Vancouver. It’s independent because it’s free but it is not a non-profit organization. As far as I know, they pay their writers and editors a salary.

It’s a newspaper because the Straight is published under the Vancouver Free Press Publishing Corp. An organization I’m not very familiar with, interestingly, the Straight is not a member of the BC Press Council who

promote ethical practices within the BC newspaper community and serve as a forum for complaints against its members BC Press Council webpage.

The Straight has been the subject of numerous skeptical blogs and podcasts over the years; I wrote a few months ago about an article published that advocated homeopathy instead of science based medicine. Other contributors to Skeptic North have also written much about the Straight, especially Steve Thoms.

It’s no surprise to any of us that the Straight wouldn’t stop with having a homeopathic practitioner write an article advocating you buy homeopathic kits instead of science based medicine (the very kits she happens to sell) In an article published on the 19th of November, the Straight ran a piece called What’s in your H1N1 flu vaccine?

The article, written by Alex Roslin, is an anti-vaccine rant about the dangerous sounding things in vaccines and how you don’t even really need one anyway. I discussed this on the latest episode of Radio Freethinker and there are a number of examples of uncritical thinking and really bad fact checking on the part of the author.

The first glaring problem is that Roslin doesn’t even get the facts straight. (No pun intended) He writes:

“First, the disease. Swine flu had killed 161 Canadians as of November 12. That works out to one death per 200,000 Canadians in the past six-and-a-half months. Over the same period of time, major cardiovascular diseases typically claim 240 times more Canadian lives (about 39,000), cancer claims 230 times more (37,000 deaths), pneumonia kills 18 times more (2,800), and accidental falls claim eight times more (1,260), according to calculations based on 2005 Statistics Canada figures.”

Keep in mind this article was written on the 19th of November. However, the week of November 11th the BC Centre for Disease Control provided these statistics:

202 new severe cases in B.C. which is 1/3rd of the total 601 severe cases previously reported. 8 people died in the week of November the 10th. The author apparently didn’t do a lot research because if he did he would have noted that November saw a rather large outbreak of H1N1 and it did a significant amount of damage.

Roslin also mentions a lot of scary sounding ingredients in vaccines and I must assume he either didn’t bother with a diligent fact checking search of the literature to see if those scary sounding ingredients are really in actuality dangerous. He reports on Aluminum salt, which he thinks is linked to the Gulf War syndrome. For those that don’t know, Gulf War syndrome is a sketchy ill defined condition that has yet to gain significant validity from the scientific community. Regardless of its reality, it supposedly takes five to ten years of incubation time. Now a lot can happen in five to ten years. Is it possible that a small dose of aluminum causes an illness ten years later? It’s possible but couldn’t there be other more reasonable causes?

However he fails to realize that the max dose of aluminum in a vaccine is about the same amount you breathe in a day. Of course he also brings up Mercury, the scariest ingredient in the anti-vaxers dictionary, which of course we have Andrew Wakefield to thank for the inclusion of.

Let’s all say this together:
Max dose of thimerosal in a vaccine: 5 micrograms
Max dose of mercury in a tuna sandwich: 60 micrograms
Solution: Skip a tuna sandwich and you should be fine for vaccines for about 12 years.

Roslin also mentions squalene. Squalene is another chemical that’s been blamed for Gulf War syndrome; however a little research reveals that squalene is naturally produced by your body. In a normal diet you get about 30 milligrams of squalene daily.

He also throws out polysorbate 80, that sounds bad, where do you find that? Industrial waste? Nope. Nuclear reactors? Nope. Mars? Nope. Polysorbate 80 is commonly found in ice cream.

Roslin brings up a lot of other scare tactics that we’ve seen before from the anti-vaxers. Big bad drug companies. Not enough human testing. Too much animal testing. He mixes up numbers and statistics to make it seem like it’s a coin toss over getting the vaccine.

A while back some of us skeptics complained to the BC Press Council about the questionable material coming from the Georgia Straight, however it turns out the Straight is not part of Press Council. When I asked the BC Press Council about why some newspapers are part of the council and others are not, they told me most newspapers feel it provides accountability to readers.

Accountability. That’s an important concept. When a newspaper prints something it needs to stand behind what it said. It should be able to defend its point. It should have some research and facts to back up what it said. It should by extension of its journalistic integrity be able to tell us it did due diligence in getting the facts right and presenting the material in a clear and accurate method.

We must ask ourselves, did the Georgia Straight act with integrity by publishing this article?

2 Responses to “What’s in Your Newspaper?”

  1. Ian says:

    Can someone fix all the apostrophes and other symbols in this article? It’s almost unreadable!

  2. Erik Davis says:

    Should be fixed. Sorry about that…we had some import issues when we moved platforms a while back that took a while to clean up.

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  • Ethan Clow

    Ethan Clow, born and raised in the Vancouver area, is best known in the skeptical community as Ethan the Freethinking Historian, co-host of Radio Freethinker, a skeptical podcast and radio show on CiTR in Vancouver. And as the former Executive Director of the Centre for Inquiry Vancouver. Ethan graduated with a B.A. in History from UBC in the fall of 2009 and has an active role with skeptical movements in Vancouver and British Columbia. He was an executive member of the UBC Freethinkers, a campus club that promotes skepticism and critical thinking. He still maintains a close relationship with the UBC Freethinkers and helps plan events and organizes skeptical activism as best he can. Currently he works for the Centre for Inquiry as the Executive Director of CFI Vancouver.