How I would have responded to outrage over HPV vaccine story if I were the Toronto Star

What the Toronto Star SHOULD have said in response to outrage over their front page story, A Wonder Drug’s Dark Side:

In Thursday’s paper, we ran a misleading front-page story and gave readers the impression the Gardasil HPV vaccine is dangerous.

We got it wrong.

In trying to tell the stories of women who say they fell ill after receiving the vaccine, we lost sight of the forest for the trees: in our headline, graphics, page layout and in the measure of information detailed in the text.

Let us be clear.

There is no evidence the Gardasil vaccine poses a danger to the public. The most credible research published to date — including analysis of the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS) database by the Centre for Disease Control in the US and a study of over a million girls in Denmark and Sweden — shows it is safe and saving lives.

Further, there is no evidence the vaccine caused the symptoms reported by the women in the story.

Despite including caveats to this effect in the text of the story, we know that our reporting is measured against the impression it is likely to make on our readers.

The headline and graphics were sensational and, taken alone, tell the reader the vaccine is dangerous. The text should have given more weight to the scientific evidence and put the anecdotal testimony into context to make explicit that the vaccine is safe despite the stories of these women.

But more than that, this story should never have gone to print with the angle it did. A proper vetting should have raised flags and our editors should have refocused our investigation to explore how anecdotal evidence is fuelling a growing distrust of vaccines despite overwhelming scientific evidence they are safe and effective.

It is especially regrettable we published this story on the front page while a public debate over the safety of vaccines is raging across the country. The editorial decisions and timing of the piece rightly raise questions about our judgment and commitment to responsible reporting.

We will do better.

Over the last year, the two reporters who worked on this story have exposed deficiencies in drug safety in a body of work that we are very proud of. That reporting has led to public policy reforms that better protect Canadians, and we will continue to demand accountability from public institutions on behalf of the public.

Starting today, we will be reviewing our editorial processes to find out where we went wrong and will make any reforms necessary. Our public editor will assess and report on the progress of those reforms in the pages of our paper in the coming weeks.

Our reporting in this case did not live up to the standards of the Toronto Star or Canadians. We apologize unreservedly and with regret.

Would that have been so hard?

In today’s paper, they published an opinion piece strongly attacking the story — signed by dozens of medical experts — but still no retraction or correction in print or online.

The Star’s public response so far has been at times defensiveslanderous, childish or equivocatory, which is too bad.

The reporters on this story’s byline are two of the best in the country. My guess is that they became emotionally invested in the devastating stories of the young women who shared with them. Maybe they were too close to step back and see the broader implications of their reporting. That happens. It’s why responsible media organization have editors and a process to vet stories.

When the news media make mistakes, they have a responsibility to take ownership, correct the record, and make reforms to avoid similar mistakes in the future. So why not get on with it?

Given the quality of the Star’s reporting on drug safety (this story an exception), I hope they can move on from this and haven’t exhausted too much of the public’s trust dragging their feet. We need them to get back to work.