Katie Couric under fire for allegedly slanted report on HPV vaccine

Katie Couric
(Andy Kropa/Invision/AP)

Katie Couric may want to brush up on her reporting skills before she takes on her new role as “global anchor” at Yahoo!, according to a number of critics displeased with a report about the HPV vaccine on her syndicated talk show, “Katie.”

In a segment that aired Wednesday, Couric and a panel of guests discussed the supposed controversy surrounding the vaccine, known as Gardasil, which prevents transmission of a sexually transmitted disease that affects an estimated 79 million Americans and has been linked to numerous forms of cancer, particularly cervical.

The outcry began Tuesday with a blog post from science writer Seth Mnookin, who had spoken extensively with a “Katie” producer who assured him the segment would not be alarmist. Mnookin was therefore troubled by the sensationalistic teaser for the episode: “The HPV vaccine is considered a life-saving cancer preventer … but is it a potentially deadly dose for girls?” According to the CDC, 57 million doses of the vaccine have been given out since it was approved in 2006, and comprehensive studies have shown no short- or long-term health effects related to the vaccine (despite outlandish claims made by Rep. Michele Bachmann).

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Fear-mogering marketing is one thing, but many other critics were equally displeased with the report that ultimately aired. On Twitter, New Yorker staff writer Michael Specter called the report “shameful” and said Couric had lost her credibility. Most problematic, according to detractors writing at Slate, Forbes, Time and Jezebel (as well as here at the Times), was that Couric’s lineup of guests skewed heavily toward critics of the vaccine.


The panel included two women who relied solely on anecdotal evidence in making their claims — one a mother whose daughter died of indeterminate causes 18 days after receiving a Gardasil shot, the other a young woman who blamed a smattering of adverse health effects on the vaccine. They were joined by Dr. Diane Harper, who erroneously asserted that the vaccine loses its efficacy after five years even (there is “no evidence of waning protection,” says the CDC). That left just one guest, Dr. Mallika Marshall, to represent the pro-vaccine side.

This lineup might have made for more dramatic television, but, according to Couric’s critics, it also creates the false impression of balance when in fact there is little divide about the safety of Gardasil within the scientific community.

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During the broadcast, Couric said that she decided to vaccinate her two daughters against HPV. Nevertheless, by giving a prominent platform to the anti-vaccine movement, she has invited negative comparisons to fellow daytime host Jenny McCarthy, who was hired by “The View” last summer despite being one of the most prominent proponents of the thoroughly discredited theory linking childhood vaccines to autism.

To some, Couric’s behavior is even more problematic than McCarthy’s, given her stature as a respected journalist and former network news anchor as well as her previous efforts to educate the public about the fight against cancer.

Updated at 1:08 p.m. Dec. 5: A representative of “Katie” said that Couric will address the controversy on Friday’s show.


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