There is a fine line between disagreeing with those quoted in a story and partaking in irresponsible, bullying behaviour. Photo: Getty
When you’re writing about topics such as health and medicine, contentious issues will crop up, the coverage of which can lead to fierce, interesting debate.
As a reporter, it is important to seek comment from all sides – including from patients and consumers, medical specialists, hospitals, scientists and researchers. Readers may not agree with one or even all of the opinions expressed in the resulting story and they are absolutely entitled to feel that way. Everyone is free to comment online, write to the editor and post the article on social media with their own input. There have never been more ways to engage.
But there is a fine line between disagreeing with those quoted in a story and partaking in irresponsible, bullying behaviour that risks placing a dampener on legitimate public debate and isolating valuable experts we rely on for comment. The response to a piece I wrote in the Sun Herald and published on the Sydney Morning Herald website over the weekend shows that some people are not interested in debate but simply for their own view to prevail unchallenged.
The story I’m referring to was about a brand of baby formula that for several weeks, mothers have been trying to get pulled from shop shelves because they claim their children have suffered adverse reactions. It is a story that was published widely in other media a few weeks ago, but there was a glaring omission from these articles – they lacked any clinical comment from medical professionals specialising in paediatrics.
The formula was tested by Nestle. Then tested again. The mothers campaign continued so independent testers stepped in, including the NSW Food Authority. So when I received a press release from the mothers' campaigning against the formula stating they still wanted it off the shelves, it seemed natural to approach hospitals to ask if they had seen any babies suffering adverse reactions from the formula.
I spoke to a number of health care workers and doctors, on and off-the-record. Not one claimed to have seen a baby to have fallen ill from the formula – and despite it being the same recipe used throughout the world, only one group of predominantly NSW mothers are reporting that the formula is harmful. Some health professionals expressed frustration to me that despite the extensive testing, the mothers were continuing with the campaign rather than being open to other rationalisations for the side-effects.
The response from some mothers to the piece was to publically attack a senior doctor quoted in the story on a Facebook page set up protesting the formula. Because this doctor did not agree with them, they questioned this doctor's professional conduct. To attack a doctor so publically for having a valid medical opinion is disturbing.
Journalists need doctors to be able to speak out without fear. It makes our job harder to do parents decide to publish false speculation about the credentials of a senior specialist, understandably making other doctors fearful the same may happen to them. Unfortunately these mothers seem to think because there are a couple of thousand of them on a Facebook page, they know more than senior clinicians.
The lowest action by one mother was to post the private contact details of the doctor on the Facebook page. Thankfully, the founder of the page had the sense to remove these details, but not before damage had been done, with the very busy clinician attacked through phone calls to his personal number simply becauise he gave his clinical opinion to the Herald. This kind of witch-hunt behaviour is nothing short of disgusting.
What gives any group the right to attack a senior doctor in this highly personal way? This is a senior specialist who has helped thousands of babies, contributed significantly to research in the areas of infant health and who dedicates his life to ensuring children are healthy. Is this the response from a rationale, balanced group? It’s one thing to disagree with a doctor. It’s another thing altogether to vilify one.
The doctors quoted in my story had quite simple advice to offer. Parents should seek help from a GP if their babies experience any symptoms following the use of any formula. If a baby does have a reaction, parents should consider swapping to another brand. It is normal for babies, with delicate digestive systems, to respond better to some formulas than others. No need for fear-mongering or campaigning - just a bit of logic.
Parents cop enough crap as it is. They’re criticised for not breastfeeding, for breastfeeding too long, for where they send their child to school, the ages that their child should be walking and talking. The biggest critics of mums seems to be other mums though that’s not to say dads don’t experience this too. With all the aspects of child-rearing parents can apparently get so wrong– surely balanced reporting that gives trained experts a voice is vital.
It reeks of anti-vaccination campaigners who use shoddy evidence and real but unrelated symptoms in campaigns scaring other parents into not getting their children immunised. It is at best, pathetic and at worst, highly dangerous.
One of the mothers I spoke to for this article [but not quoted in it] said; ''My husband wants me to stop this campaign because I'm so focussed on it he thinks I've started to neglect our baby''. But unlike the doctor quoted in the story, she is seen by those campaigning as noble.
The militant mother mentality has to stop. At what point will these mothers be satisfied? Not until every senior clinician agrees with them and the baby formula manufacturer in question gets rid of what is, by all expert accounts, a safe product. But as a reporter, I for one will not be contributing to a scare-campaign simply because a group of vocal, media-savvy parents believe they are doctors and that their views should prevail.
Melissa Davey is a health reporter for the Sydney Morning Herald.
Follow Melissa on Twitter: @MelissaLDavey