5 ways Grist turned critics into fans after publishing controversial story

A study that suggests a link between food and autism is bound to kick up controversy.

For years there has been a persistent myth linking autism and vaccines. It was fed in part by a since-retracted research paper, and spread thanks to celebrity endorsers like Jenny McCarthy, among others. Journalist Seth Mnookin offered an in-depth look at this falsehood in his recent book, “Panic Virus.”

It’s no surprise, then, that environmental news website Grist found itself facing strong, informed criticism after it published an article about a recent scientific paper that suggested a link between high-fructose corn syrup and autism.

The story was published with the headline, “New study links autism to high-fructose corn syrup,” and looked at the research and the possible implications of such a link.

The piece did not take the research as fact, and included hedging about the data and whether this kind of link could really be established. At the same time, the story did not offer a critical look at the study’s methodology or the quality of its findings.

As Grist executive editor Scott Rosenberg later explained in a blog post, “in drawing attention to the HFCS study without adequately evaluating it, we steered right into some very treacherous waters, and we should have known better.”

Many news organizations find themselves in this situation: they publish something in good faith but soon realize it has become the subject of criticism from the public, experts and perhaps even fellow journalists.

In an email, Rosenberg detailed how he became aware of the criticism:

Right now nearly everything we post at Grist is edited before publication, and this column was too, but I hadn’t seen it before it went live, and the way my day went on the day it was posted, I hadn’t read it before I began getting messages from colleagues, peers and strangers — some on Twitter, some in email — saying, essentially, “there’s a problem here.” So right then I pretty much dropped what I’d been working on and went and read the study our post was based on. By this point there were a couple of blog posts out there criticizing our work as well, so I read them, too.

What an organization does next is important. Will it engage the critics, and how? Will it see if their concerns are valid and, if so, what will the organization do about that?

It’s not surprising Rosenberg’s handling of this situation would in the end provide a useful case study in how to deal with a problematic piece of content. He became immersed in the world of corrections and press accountability as the founder of MediaBugs, a Knight News Challenge-funded project that enables anyone to report an error they spot in a news report.

I was an unpaid advisor to MediaBugs, and Rosenberg and I have stayed in touch. That said, I became aware of this story and response thanks to an email sent to Poynter, not via Rosenberg.

That brings us to how he handled this situation, and what I think Grist did right. In the end, it seems some of their critics agree the publication did a good job.

Deborah Blum of the the Knight Science Journalism Tracker, who published a critique of the initial story, called an explanatory post by Rosenberg “thoughtful and … wonderfully non-defensive.”

Blum, a Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer, also praised a follow-up Grist article about the controversial paper, saying, “I’ve rarely read a better deconstruction – or maybe evisceration is a better word – of a deeply flawed scientific paper.”

So how did Grist turn critics into fans? Here are five key points.

  1. They paid attention to criticism and feedback. You will never please everyone, but that doesn’t mean you ignore people who raise concerns about your reporting. Rosenberg and his colleagues read the concerns and did so with open minds. No circling the wagons, as Rosenberg himself would note. Instead of blindly saying “We stand by our story,” Rosenberg instead “dropped what I’d been working on and went and read the study our post was based on.” Note that he went to the source of the post, not just the post itself. He did his research.
  2. They realized factual errors aren’t the only kind of notable mistakes. The original story didn’t commit any specific factual errors. It was more about the way the scientific paper was presented, and the fact that notable (and questionable) elements of the research were not made clear to readers. Here’s what Rosenberg told me: “I went back and reviewed our column and determined that, outside of the headline, there weren’t really changes that needed to be made in our column, or outright corrections — it was a reasonable and accurate representation of the study — but we still had problems we needed to address, since the study itself seemed to raise so many questions.”
  3. They used good journalism to address problematic journalism. So, how to address the problems Rosenberg mentioned? For me, this is one of the best parts of Grist’s response. Faced with a post that raised concerns, they assigned a new story to a reputable scientific writer. Rather than simply insert a couple of sentences in the original post to point to the criticism, they applied resources to deliver solid journalism that added context and expertise to the initial post. The subsequent article by Emily Willingham of The Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism is a great read. It’s good journalism, and Grist should be proud to publish it.
  4. They invited critics inside the tent. Why did Rosenberg think to assign the follow-up piece to Willingham? One reason was she had been a critic of Grist’s initial article. “She was one of our critics on Twitter and I asked her to take a look at the paper for us,” Rosenberg said. “The result is the story we posted.” Inviting a knowledgeable critic to contribute was a great idea. But that wasn’t the only reason he thought of her. “I turned to the excellent science-blogging community centered around the Science Online conference that I’ve attended for a couple of years and found a writer whose work I already knew a little and who has done a lot of work on autism,” Rosenberg said of Willingham. I love the fact he thought to recruit someone from a credible community that was relevant to the topic at hand. He tapped someone from outside his circle of Grist contributors. I think this gave the resulting piece additional credibility, and demonstrated the publication’s willingness to bring in new voices — even critical ones.
  5. They explained themselves, and did so with humility. Grist added an editor’s note to the original post to explain why they changed the headline, and to point readers to Rosenberg’s post and the new Grist piece by Willingham. Rosenberg’s post offered further explanation to readers, and gave a behind-the-scenes look at the decisions they made.

A good response to a situation such as the one faced by Grist can turn a problem into an opportunity to demonstrate your organization’s values and standards, and your commitment to accountability.

I listed five things I liked about what Grist did. Do you see anything you don’t like about the response, or other notable points? I’d love to hear them in the comments.

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  • http://twitter.com/AutismNewsBeat AutismNewsBeat

     I’ve been monitoring and critiquing media coverage of the phony vaccines/autism story since 2007. The main problem with these stories is false balance, which misleads the casual reader into thinking the evidence is also balanced. Not every topic is treated as if both sides have equal stake to the truth. No reputable news outlet would balance a Martin Luther King Day story with comments from Aryan Nation or the Klan. Creationists are generally regarded as not credible sources of information about evolution. And when was the last time a 9/11 Truther was treated seriously in the press?

    The vaccine beat is a target rich environment without resorting to coverage of poorly-done studies and discredited, rogue researchers. Example: last year, legislatures in eight states shot down proposed laws which would have made it easier for parents to exempt their children from vaccines. At the start of 2012, there were eight more such proposals, none of which are faring well today. I heard from a South Dakota anti-vaccine legislator who admitted he got most of his information from the internet. He still believes vaccines cause autism. I listened to the testimony of another lawmaker who told HHS committe members that vaccine scientists aborted late term fetuses, and then removed their organs while they were still alive, in order to grow vaccine culture. Think about this – an elected lawmaker in S. Dakota sponsored a bill that would make it easier for parents to expose their children and others to dangerous diseases, based on an internet rumor.

    Isn’t it time to question how lawmakers with no medical education are influencing public health policy?

  • http://www.allourlives.org/ TooManyJens

    I assume Bob will just say I’m part of the cover-up, but I didn’t want to leave this comment hanging there for anyone else to come across without noting that Bob is totally wrong and the “vaccines cause autism” hypothesis has been thoroughly debunked. Please vaccinate your kids.

  • Anonymous

    Everyone knows the cause of autism. Of all the cover-ups being carried out by the medical industrial complex, nothing is sicker than the data manipulation, data burying and  intimidation of scientists like that involving vaccines. The truth always surfaces. To bad our media is nothing more than blind, spineless, cronies for unfettered greed!