The next episode of CANADALAND (Monday, Feb.16) will include a feature chat with Julia Belluz, the health reporter who Toronto Star Editor-in-Chief Michael Cooke told to “stop drinking his bathwater” when she questioned him about their flawed front-page investigation into the HPV vaccine Gardasil. Star publisher John Cruikshank has since told the CBC that his paper “failed” in the reporting of this story, and that he and Cooke take responsibility. At this time, The Star has not corrected or retracted their story, and Michael Cooke has not apologized to Julia Belluz. 

The following is an excerpt from the upcoming  interview with Belluz. 

So how did The Star get this so spectacularly wrong?

In all of journalism we go out and try to get the best anecdotes we can for our story. But in the health space you want to make sure your anecdotes actually reflect what the data is showing.  [The Star] ignored the best available research evidence and blatantly cherry-picked. They trotted out these anecdotes about women who say they’d been harmed, which are just awful, but they in no way prove that the vaccine caused this. The evidence the Star used to suggest this was just not robust.

The Star did go to a medical expert who was skeptical about Gardasil but as Dr.Gunter wrote on CANADALAND, that expert had worked for a Gardasil competitor, which The Star did not disclose. It’s true that everything in the piece is technically accurate, but everything that is left out amounts to a piece that is, like, you can be 100% accurate and 100% wrong. 

Exactly. In my emails with Michael Cooke he said “I was giving these women a voice. I was concerned about these 60 Canadian women who have been harmed by the vaccine,” that’s what he said.

Oh.

And my response was, “we don’t know that these women have been harmed by the vaccine!” He was very dismissive of my concerns. He called it an attack on The Star and that I was nitpicking his reporting.

How dare you look at our journalism’!

The concern I had with the tone and tenor of his response. The emails I sent were pretty reasoned and thoughtful.  I don’t understand how the editor in chief of The Toronto Star can be responding to valid reader criticism like that. It was very disappointing. As I wrote to them, they’ve been doing tremendous investigations into health issues. The bulk of them have been fantastic. This one was way off base.

This is not a problem with a story about hipsters making artisinal pickles or something. This is a story with consequences. People are gonna not get this vaccine because of this article. And we know that when people don’t get this vaccine, they [can] get cancer. 

That’s the thing. There might literally be people who die because of the article. This is life and death stuff. There’s reams of evidence that people see things in the media and then make very personal choices about their health. And I really wouldn’t be surprised if people opt out of the vaccine after reading that story.

Julia is there anything The Star can do to make this right?

I think that they need to correct, retract, make a story about this as big or bigger than the story they ran in the first place. And make a real effort to reach people who quite frankly were scared shitless by that story.

CANADALAND requested comment from Michael Cooke, but did not hear back immediately. This post will be updated with his response should it arrive.