News with a negative frame: a vaccination case study

Brian Martin

4 March 2016

 


bmartin@uow.edu.au

See also

Brian Martin's writings on the attack on Judy Wilyman and her thesis

Go to

Brian Martin's publications on vaccination

Brian Martin's publications

Brian Martin's website


 

On Wednesday 13 January 2016, The Australian newspaper published a news story by journalist Kylar Loussikian titled "Uni accepts thesis on vaccine 'conspiracy'." It provides an illuminating example of how to construct an article casting its subject in a negative light. It also happened to serve as a vehicle for a longstanding campaign of denigration.

Here, I offer a critique of Loussikian's story, pointing out a number of the techniques used in it. I first give some context about journalistic practices and about my own involvement. After providing some background about the vaccination debate, I go through Loussikian's text, presenting information about its frame and about some of the statements made and quoted. In the conclusion, I summarise several aspects of framing involved and comment on how readily they can be detected.[1]

Context

Although many journalists and media outlets aspire to an ideal that can be called objectivity or balance,[2] in practice nearly every news story is based on a frame or angle, namely a viewpoint from which the story is told. Journalists select stories according to "news values", which are criteria about what is newsworthy. Typical news values include prominence, conflict and immediacy. The prime minister's clash with opponents yesterday is more newsworthy than a teacher's brilliant work last year.

In analysing Loussikian's article, I highlight the framing techniques he used that fostered stigma concerning Judy Wilyman's thesis, namely a sense that it is unworthy and tainted.[3]

Personally, I have an interest in Loussikian's article. Its subject is the PhD thesis of a former student of mine. I am mentioned too, not in a positive light. This is an analysis of framing undertaken by someone who has a personal interest in the article.[4]

On the other hand, my personal involvement in the issues covered in the article gives me extra information and insight that would be hard for an outsider to obtain. I use information and insights from being an insider to inform my analysis, but much of this analysis is possible using publicly available information, or at least information available to Loussikian.

Over the decades, I've had lots of interactions with journalists, most of them favourable. I'm regularly approached for interviews or background, especially on topics such as whistleblowing and plagiarism. Personally, I admire the profession of journalism, which has much in common with scholarship, including a commitment to understanding topics and communicating insights to wider audiences without fear or favour. Being a journalist can be incredibly challenging given the need to get on top of an issue very quickly and to juggle working on several stories at the same time. A print journalist may write as many words in a week as an academic does in a year, so it is unrealistic to hold journalists to the same expectations.

I undertake this analysis of Loussikian's story in the spirit of scholarly analysis. It is intended as a critique, just as I have undertaken critiques of scholarly writing.[5] I have no personal connection with Loussikian. I have chosen his article for analysis because it displays negative framing in a stark fashion, and because it has been used by vaccination proponents as a part of a coordinated attack on Judy's thesis, on her personally, on me and on the University of Wollongong. Spending effort on scrutiny is worthwhile if it reveals problems and patterns that might be of wider significance. Those familiar with analysis of the media will recognise that several of the framing techniques used in Loussikian's article are common to nearly all journalism.

The vaccination debate

To appreciate the methods used in Loussikian's article, it is useful to understand a bit about the public debate over vaccination. Vaccines are small quantities of disease agents, such as modified versions of viruses or bacteria, given to individuals with the aim of triggering the immune system and thereby creating immunity to the full-blown disease. Vaccines are available for many diseases, such as polio, measles and whooping cough. In Australia, children are given many doses of vaccines in their early years, starting from birth.[6]

Government health authorities, nearly all researchers and most physicians support vaccination as a public health measure that saves many lives and is extremely safe. Advocates of vaccination often say it is one of medicine's greatest achievements.[7]

In the face of this endorsement by nearly all authorities and experts, there are some critics of vaccination. They say the benefits of vaccination have been oversold and that there are significant risks to an unknown number of children. The critics are concerned about the continually expanding vaccination schedule and say parents should have a choice about whether their children are vaccinated.[8]

Many advocates of vaccination favour methods that encourage or apply pressure to vaccinate. In Australia in 2016, certain welfare payments are withheld from parents unless their children are vaccinated or they receive a medical exemption signed by a doctor. Workers in the health system are required to be vaccinated.

In a number of countries, public debate over vaccination has occurred for decades, and there is no sign it will end soon.[9]

The Australian vaccination debate

In Australia, the vaccination debate for many years proceeded much the same as in other countries, with a few citizen-based groups being critical of vaccination in the face of endorsement by health authorities. One of the citizen-based groups is the Australian Vaccination Network (AVN), set up in the mid 1990s by Meryl Dorey; it became the largest and most prominent such group in the country.[10]

In 2009, another citizens' group was set up, called Stop the Australian Vaccination Network (SAVN), organised around a Facebook Page.[11] SAVN's goal from the beginning was to shut down the AVN, and to accomplish this it used a variety of methods, including making unsupported claims about the AVN's beliefs, making derogatory and demeaning comments about Dorey and the AVN, making numerous complaints to government agencies about the AVN and attempting to block Dorey from giving talks by writing letters to event organisers, among many other methods.[12] As well as trying to shut down the AVN, SAVNers (those involved in SAVN) have also targeted individuals publicly critical of vaccination, including Judy Wilyman.

SAVN's attack on the AVN has become a significant feature of the Australian vaccination debate, involving numerous government investigations, court cases, news stories and a vast outpouring of online commentary.

Judy Wilyman

Judy taught high school science in Wollongong for many years and then did a master of science degree at the University of Wollongong, undertaking a critique of the Australian government's policy on pertussis. In 2007 she began a PhD under my supervision. After six months, she moved to Perth and enrolled at Murdoch University, where she also was coordinator and lecturer in courses on environmental and occupational health. In 2011, she started her PhD afresh at Wollongong. The title of her thesis is "A critical analysis of the Australian government's rationale for its vaccination policy."

As well as undertaking her PhD, Judy publicly presented criticisms of vaccination policy and soon became a target of SAVNers. They have made numerous derogatory comments about her on the SAVN Facebook page and on blogs run by SAVNers. As well, some of them have made formal complaints about Judy and about me to officials at the University of Wollongong. This sort of campaign directed at a PhD student is extremely unusual: in my decades of researching suppression of dissent, I have never heard of another such case anywhere in the world.

Loussikian's article does not mention two important features of the context: SAVN's attack on the AVN and SAVN's attack on Judy. Most readers of the article would be unaware of these features and hence ill-equipped to understand the possibility of quite different frames.[13]

Choice of topic

The topic of Loussikian's article is the university's granting of a PhD. Why should this be considered newsworthy? After all, it is commonplace for research students to receive PhDs, including numerous ones on topics that challenge conventional wisdom. It is worth probing a bit further into Loussikian's choice of a topic and into topics he did not pursue.

The central message of his article is that there is something suspicious or dishonest about this thesis and about everyone involved in its approval. Imagine a different story, about a campaign waged against anyone speaking openly critical of vaccination, including an attempt to discredit a research student and disrupt her research. This would be, in other words, a story about SAVN's campaigns.

Loussikian had the opportunity to pursue either of these stories, or neither. Before he went to press, he had a copy of my piece "Judy Wilyman, PhD", which describes SAVN's years-long campaign against Judy. However, Louissikian chose to write a story about alleged shortcomings of the thesis, not mentioning the existence of SAVN's campaign.

There are some other possible stories in the vaccination area that Loussikian did not pursue. Vaccines are tested and manufactured by pharmaceutical companies, and several of these companies are known to be involved in corrupt activities, including misrepresenting research findings, ghostwriting scientific papers and suppressing reports of adverse effects of drugs. The companies sponsor or subsidise numerous scientific and medical conferences, using them as platforms for promulgating favourable reports on their products. They pay scientists and physicians to attend conferences and provide them with free samples of drugs, and offer other perks. This whole area is rife with illegal, corrupt and dubious practices, some of them involving billions of dollars and costing thousands of lives.[14]

Then there is corruption in the Australian medical system: Medicare is defrauded of billions of dollars per year, which collectively in dollar terms constitutes one of the biggest crime operations in the country.[15] This fraud involves doctors, hospitals, pharmacists, allied health practitioners, receptionists, insurance fund staff, computer hackers and organised crime syndicates.

In Australia, there are hundreds of research projects in which a conflict of interest is built into funding arrangements: researchers stand to gain research grants, consulting opportunities, future jobs and other benefits, but only if they continue to come up with results welcome to the organisation funding the research.

On the other hand, there are quite a few research areas, for example concerning the environment and public health, where such funding and career opportunities are scarce or nonexistent, even though citizens would welcome studies. Groups with money and resources often do not fund research in such areas when managers expect findings would be contrary to their their organisation's interests. The resulting gap in knowledge is referred to as "undone science".[16] The pharmaceutical industry has little incentive to fund research on substances that cannot be patented or on diseases affecting groups with little money.

There is funding available for researchers to develop new vaccines, to study the operation of current vaccines and to study how to promote vaccination, and some of this funding leads to conflicts of interest, for example when researchers receive money from pharmaceutical companies to study vaccines in clinical trials. In addition, some of these researchers sit on panels advising on the government's vaccination policy, an additional conflict of interest.

On the other hand, anyone focusing on problems with vaccination is very unlikely to receive funding from pharmaceutical companies. This is an understatement. Becoming an open critic of any aspect of vaccination is a very bad career move. Because there is little money for critical studies of vaccination, the potential for financial conflicts of interest is minimal.

Any journalist looking for a story about corruption would find much material involving pharmaceutical companies and the health care industry. The stakes are huge in terms of money and human health. However, few journalists have tackled the corruption and conflicts of interest in this area. One reason is that such stories require much more time, effort and money, in a context in which support for investigative journalism has declined.

Loussikian chose a story, and an angle for it, that was easier than tackling corruption in health care. He used a hostile frame, which was an easy option due to the longstanding campaign against Judy and her work. It requires far more work to write a story that raises questions about the views of dominant experts. Furthermore, mentioning SAVN in any critical way would probably lead to an attack by SAVNers. Adopting SAVN's framing of the thesis story was an easier option for this reason too.

Conspiracy?

Now to Loussikian's article.[17] Its title:

Uni accepts thesis on vaccine 'conspiracy'

Titles of newspaper articles are usually written by specialist title-writers, so Loussikian probably didn't write this.

The opening sentence of the article reads as follows.

The University of Wollongong has accepted a PhD thesis from a prominent anti-vaccination activist that warns that global agencies such as the World Health Organisation are colluding with the pharmaceutical industry in a massive conspiracy to spruik immunisation.

This sentence, which sets the tone for the article, uses loaded terminology ("warns", "massive conspiracy") to present an angle on the thesis that stigmatises criticism of the standard arguments in support of vaccination.

In "Judy Wilyman, PhD", posted on 11 January, I conveniently summarised the main themes of Judy's thesis, saying that it:

makes four main critical points in relation to Australian government vaccination policy. First, deaths from infectious diseases had dramatically declined in Australia before the mass introduction of most vaccines, suggesting that vaccination is not the only factor in controlling these diseases. Second, Australian vaccination policies were adopted from a one-size-fits-all set of international recommendations, without consideration of the special ecological conditions in Australia, for example the levels of sanitation and nutrition, and the incidence and severity of diseases. Third, nearly all research on vaccination is carried out or sponsored by pharmaceutical companies with a vested interest in selling vaccines; the conflicts of interest involved in vaccine research can lead to bias in the research design and conclusions drawn. Fourth, there are important areas of research relevant to vaccination policy that have not been pursued, but should have been; a plausible reason for this “undone science” is that the findings might turn out to be unwelcome to vaccination promoters.

Loussikian received a link to"Judy Wilyman, PhD" the day before his story was published. He thus had easy access to a summary of its main points. He chose to ignore this summary and instead portray the thesis as presenting a conspiracy theory.

In common parlance, to say that someone believes in a conspiracy theory implies they are misguided, gullible, paranoid, or even insane. By applying the conspiracy-theory label, Loussikian used a powerful negative framing device that trivialised the detailed arguments in Judy's thesis.

It is worth nothing that SAVN has been attributing a belief in conspiracy theories to its targets for years, indeed, from SAVN's formation. Initially, SAVN's Facebook page stated that the Australian Vaccination Network believed in a global conspiracy to implant mind control chips via vaccination, without providing any credible supporting evidence that AVN members actually believed this ludicrous idea.[18] Attributing a belief in conspiracy theories is a way of discrediting others, saying in effect: "You believe in a conspiracy theory, hence you have no credibility." This implicit view ignores actual research on conspiracies and conspiracy-theory beliefs, including the points that conspiracies do exist and that conspiracy theories need to be rebutted: they are not proved wrong simply by calling them conspiracy theories.[19]

Loussikian's article continues:

Judy Wilyman, the convener of Vaccination Decisions and Vaccination Choice, submitted the thesis late last year,

Actually, Judy orginally submitted her thesis much earlier than this. However, details of the submission history and responses of the examiners are confidential.

concluding Australia’s vaccination policy was not a result of independent assessment but the work of pharmaceutical industry pressure on the WHO.

The WHO convened a ­“secret emergency committee” funded by drug firms to “orchestrate” hysteria relating to a global swine flu pandemic in 2009, Ms Wilyman said in her thesis.

“The swine flu pandemic of 2009 was declared by a secret WHO committee that had ties to pharmaceutical companies that stood to make excessive profits from the pandemic,” she wrote.

Loussikian presents a few quotes from the thesis to frame it as adopting a conspiracy theory, and thereby trivialises the careful argument in the thesis about the shortcomings of the Australian government's rationale for its vaccination policy.

Critics

Several medical researchers and public health advocates have slammed the PhD thesis — to be awarded through the university’s School of Humanities — with some calling for it to be sent to the university’s academic board for review.

It is certainly noteworthy that critics of the thesis formed such a conclusive judgement within 24 hours of it being made public, insufficient time for them to have read it carefully. If their views are based on framing of the thesis as based on a conspiracy theory - the approach reported by Loussikian - it seems a reasonable inference that these medical researchers and public health advocates did not understand or appreciate the arguments in the thesis.

Why did these researchers and advocates feel competent to second-guess the expert independent examiners of the thesis? How could a review of the thesis, under a firestorm of hostile commentary, possibly be fair-minded?

Incidentally, the University of Wollongong does not have an "academic board"; the relevant body is called Academic Senate. Judy's thesis was awarded through the School of Humanities and Social Inquiry (not the “School of Humanities”), as stated on the title page of her thesis.

Denigrating Judy

Ms Wilyman ...

Loussikian refers to Judy as "Ms Wilyman". Given that earlier in the article he wrote that the university had accepted her thesis, he should have referred to her as Dr Wilyman. Referring to her as Ms Wilyman is an obvious slight, whether or not intended, serving to reduce her status.

... has been the subject of controversy for several years, most notably falsely linking vaccination with autism and questioning whether a family was paid to use their young daughter’s death to promote vaccines.

The issues about her public statements concerning autism and the way vaccines are promoted are complicated and contested.[20] The point relevant to Loussikian's story about her PhD is that a student's public comments are not taken into account in granting a degree. The student's thesis is assessed on its merits. The PhD is awarded on the basis of scholarship as displayed in the thesis, not on the basis of other activities, however these might be judged. For Loussikian to bring up Judy's public activities happens to tie in with SAVN's agenda to discredit the person.

In October, she circulated an interview on her Vaccination Choice Facebook page in which anti-vaccination campaigner Sherri Tenpenny suggested Nazi scientists had “infiltrated” new medication research and were working to make “everybody on the planet sicker”.

What Judy circulates on her Facebook page is not relevant to the award of a PhD. Here Loussikian uses the technique of guilt by association, associating particular alleged views of Sherri Tenpenny with Judy, and Judy's posts on her Facebook page with her thesis.

Attacking the university

Senior immunology academic John Dwyer, spokesman for the Friends of Science in Medicine, said he would write to the university and express his concerns.

Friends of Science in Medicine campaigns against individuals and groups that question, or provide alternatives to, conventional medicine. Loussikian, by his choice of people to quote, implies that medical specialists such as Dwyer have credibility for making immediate sweeping judgements about a thesis dealing with policy, even though they have no credentials nor any refereed publications in policy studies.

“The candidate (Ms Wilyman) has endorsed a conspiracy theory where all sorts of organisations with claimed vested interests are putting pressure on WHO to hoodwink the world into believing that vaccines provide more benefits than they cause harm,” Professor Dwyer said.

“Many well-established concepts in science are being challenged in this thesese [sic] with no data to support the conclusions provides [sic] and while the candidate has been controversial for some time with her anti-vaccination stance, the important issue is how a leading university has allowed this theses [sic] to go for review and for her to be given one of the highest degrees a university can award.

Dwyer misrepresents the thesis and then attacks the misrepresentation. He does not say why he has any authority to pass judgement on a social science thesis, nor how he could be so confident in his condemnation only 24 hours after the thesis was made public.

The limitations of speaking too soon on the basis of inadequate expertise and information are shown in a couple of ways. Dwyer is quoted as saying "Many well-established concepts in science are being challenged". What are they? He refers to there being "no data" to support these conclusions. How could Dwyer possibly make this assessment, given the reams of data presented in the thesis? Dwyer might have reasonably said he disagrees with the conclusions reached in the thesis and contested some of the evidence provided and the arguments made. He went far beyond this, making superficial and misinformed comments. Loussikian generously quoted Dwyer, thereby supporting his framing of the thesis.

“I’d like to see the academic board ask for a review, for a please explain, from the faculty and the supervisor.”

Dwyer seems to have decided the thesis is no good and then worked backwards to assume the faculty and supervisor are accountable. The quote from Dwyer does not indicate any awareness of the importance of thesis examination being carried out by independent examiners, rather than an "academic board" under pressure from campaigners opposed to the thesis.[21]

Attacking the supervisor

The thesis was supervised by Brian Martin, a professor of social sciences at the university with a long history of supporting controversial PhD candidates.

Actually, few of the PhD students I've supervised were controversial in themselves. It would be more accurate to say quite a few tackled controversial topics.

Another of Professor Martin’s students was Michael Primero, associated with Medical Veritas, a self-described journal of “truth in health science” that alleged the Foundation had declared a war on consciousness through the imposition of musical tuning standards.

It is not immediately obvious what relevance my supervision of Michael Primero has to a story about the university granting a PhD to Judy 15 years later.[22]

Loussikian's mention of Michael misleadingly suggests I have a track record of supervising students studying the vaccination issue, and implies some sort of association with Medical Veritas via a former student. To achieve this, Loussikian ignored the full spectrum of my supervisory experience, all publicly available on my website.[23]

Loussikian also failed to mention that I do not have strong views about vaccination, as repeatedly stated in my publications on the vaccination controversy. Within the field of science and technology studies, there is a tradition of research on controversies in which, on many occasions, scholars do not have a personal position on the issue but want to understand the dynamics of the controversy.[24] Loussikian ignored my writings on controversies and instead painted me as an opponent of vaccination.[25]

Guilt by association operates by juxtaposing two entities, one of which is stigmatised, with the implicit suggestion that the stigma also attaches to the other entity. Loussikian does this by referring to just two of my PhD students, one of whom is publicly critical of vaccination, with the implication that I am a critic of vaccination.

Supervising students studying the vaccination issue is legitimate academically and, in my case, does not involve a conflict of interest. Contrast this to the thousands of academics and research students who are in blatant conflicts of interest because they receive funding from companies to study company products, services or marketing strategies.

Professor Martin dismissed concerns about the paper, saying they were “not genuine concerns about quality and probity but instead part of a campaign to denigrate viewpoints they oppose”.

Here is the relevant section of "Judy Wilyman, PhD" from which Loussikian quoted.

When people criticise a research student’s work, it is worth checking for tell-tale signs indicating when these are not genuine concerns about quality and probity but instead part of a campaign to denigrate viewpoints they oppose.

1. They attack the person, not just their work.
2. They concentrate on alleged flaws in the work, focusing on small details and ignoring the central points.
3. They make no comparisons with other students or theses or with standard practice, but rather make criticisms in isolation or according to their own assumed standards.
4. They assume that findings contrary to what they believe is correct must be wrong or dangerous or both.

The attacks on Judy’s research exhibit every one of these signs. Her opponents attack her as a person, repeatedly express outrage over certain statements she has made while ignoring the central themes in her work, make no reference to academic freedom or standard practice in university procedures, and simply assume that she must be wrong.

A tell-tale sign

Loussikian's article continues:

Ms Wilyman’s thesis cited a 27-year-old paper that claimed there was no clear link that human papillomavirus infection is causally related to cervical cancer, despite more recent work suggesting 70 per cent of cervical cancer is related to HPV.

“The promotional campaigns for HPV vaccine misrepresented the risk of HPV infections and cervical cancer to women in different countries,” Ms Wilyman wrote.

“This was done in order to create a market for the vaccine.” The paper included figures showing the incidence of cervical cancer separated by developed or developing regions, which appear to incorrectly exclude China, North Africa and western Asia.

Loussikian here refers to Judy's citation of a 27-year-old paper, without mentioning that she uses historical sources to judge the development of policy, including whether it was suitably grounded in research findings available at the time.

To refer to "the paper" (that is, Judy's PhD thesis) as having some alleged inaccuracies is to exhibit what I listed as tell-tale sign 3: concentrating on alleged flaws in the work, focusing on small details and ignoring the central points.

Public Health Association of Australia chief executive Michael Moore said it was important not to “lightly dismiss a PhD” that had been the subject of half a decade of work.

Moore's initial comment is sensible, in my view.

“However, this PhD is based on the concept of undone science, implying there is not enough research about the issue or that the research is inappropriately funded,” said Professor Moore, the incoming president of the World Federation of Public Health Associations.

Professor Moore seems not to appreciate that there is a body of social research about the concept of undone science, so it is not surprising he does not characterise it correctly. Nor does he show any awareness of Judy's careful exposition of undone science concerning the HPV vaccine.

“On the contrary, the vast majority of research in Australia, including through the National Centre for Immunisation Research and Surveillance, is government-funded and the overwhelming consensus of academics supports the efficacy of vaccination.”

In relation to undone science, saying that research is government-funded and that most academics support vaccination is a non sequitor: it is not a rebuttal to Judy's arguments about undone science.

Orthopedic surgeon and vaccination campaigner John Cunningham said Ms Wilyman’s understanding of the immune system was “flawed and oversimplified”, and the thesis “had been produced within a vacuum and without an appreciation of medical science”.

Scholarly criticism via a journalist?

It is worth noting that the critics of Judy's thesis did not follow typical scholarly protocols, for example putting their concerns to the author and/or submitting their criticisms to a scholarly journal. Loussikian was following standard journalistic practice; the critics eschewed scholarly processes by taking their concerns to a journalist so quickly.

The university’s vice-chancellor, Paul Wellings, has repeatedly declined to answer questions about Ms Wilyman’s research ...

Loussikian does not mention that hundreds of PhD students graduated from the University of Wollongong during the few years Professor Wellings had been Vice-Chancellor, and that it is absurd to expect him to respond to queries about the content of any one of them. It is not the business of a Vice-Chancellor to undertake personal scrutiny of theses, but rather to oversee the administration of the research degree system at the university.

... but a spokesman said the university stood by it.

“UOW ensures research is undertaken according to strict ethical and quality standards and supports researchers’ academic freedom of thought and expression,” he said.

“UOW does not restrict the subjects into which research may be undertaken just because they involve public controversy or because individuals or groups oppose the topic or the findings.”

The university, in anticipation of attacks on Judy's thesis, had prepared a statement. Loussikian quoted from the statement, thereby offering a semblance of balance. However, he left out two other sentences from the statement:

As a leading research-intensive university, the University of Wollongong values intellectual openness, freedom of opinion, diversity of ideas, equity, and mutual respect.

and

UOW does not endorse the individual views of its academics or students. It recognises the importance of open and respectful public policy debate to the preservation of a free and democratic society.

The examiners

UOW declined to name external examiners who approved the thesis.

According to university procedures, the names of the external examiners are confidential. If their names were publicly available, examiners would potentially be subject to hostile comment, and this potentially might discourage scholars' willingness to be examiners and their ability to make a fair assessment. This is why most scholarly journals maintain the anonymity of peer reviewers.

When contacted, Ms Wilyman said she was busy.

Journalists, when reporting on a controversial issue, often seek comment from both sides, in order to give balance. However, this process is commonly used to support a story's frame, for example by relegating the response from one side to the bottom of the article, as an afterthought, just as Loussikian did in this instance.

The day before the article went to print, Loussikian approached the university, me and Judy. The university's statement has already been noted. Judy, having come under attack by hostile journalists over several years, and used to having her comments misrepresented, was naturally reluctant to talk to Loussikian.

Loussikian contacted me the day before and I responded promptly, giving him a link to my piece "Judy Wilyman, PhD". To address the points I had raised would have provided a comprehensive rebuttal to the way Louissikian had framed his story.

Imagine him writing something like this:

Professor Martin provided a link to a document he had just posted, "Judy Wilyman, PhD: how to understand attacks on a research student". In it, he summarised the key points in Dr Wilyman's thesis, and listed four "tell-tale signs" that criticisms of a PhD thesis are part of an attack rather than a genuine concern about academic standards. One of the signs listed by Professor Martin was that statements from the thesis are taken out of context and subjected to criticism."

This obviously would not have served Loussikian's angle. If taken to its logical extension, it would lead to a story about SAVN's attack. Instead, Loussikian, consistent with his framing of the story, omitted to mention that I had responded to his queries with reference to a document that anticipated how Judy's thesis would be attacked.

Quotes

EXTRACTS FROM JUDY WILYMAN'S PHD THESIS
There is no stringent monitoring of adverse effects or evaluation of the effectiveness of vaccines in the population that would provide meaningful data on their effects in the population.

WHO is perceived to be out of touch with global communities and it is controlled by the interests of corporations and the World Bank.

The diseases for which vaccines are recommended have not been demonstrated to be a serious risk to the majority of children in Australia.

The promotional campaigns for HPV vaccine misrepresented the risk of HPV infections and cervical cancer to women in different countries. This was done in order to create a market for the vaccine.

The 'Swine Flu' pandemic of 2009 was declared by a secret WHO committee that had ties to pharmaceutical companies that stood to make excessive profits from the pandemic.

JUDY WILYMAN

The above quotes from Judy's thesis were presented in a blue-coloured box, along with a photo of Judy. Loussikian used these quotes to support his conspiracy-theory framing of the thesis, discrediting it by suggesting that statements in it are preposterous.

Readers can check the context of the quotes themselves by searching for them in the pdf of Judy's thesis.

'Nazi scientists took off their business suits and put on a white coat ... there is a global conspiracy ... to make everybody on the planet sicker' - SHERRI TENPENNY, IN A VIDEO WILYMAN POSTED TO VACCINATION CHOICE, HER OFFICIAL FACEBOOK PAGE

Presenting a quote from Tenpenny immediately after quotes from Judy's thesis can give the impression that Judy endorses Tenpenny's views. In any case, the relevance of something from Judy's Facebook page to her thesis is not obvious, given that Tenpenny is not mentioned in her thesis. The juxtaposition of quotes is an obvious instance of suggesting guilt by association.

Conclusion

In summary, Loussikian framed his story in a way that stigmatised Judy's thesis, using several techniques to do this.

1. Choice of topic Loussikian chose to look at alleged shortcomings in a PhD thesis by a student critical of government vaccination policy, but he did not mention much larger and systemic problems among groups supportive of vaccination. This is framing via the choice of a topic to report on.

2. Loaded labelling Loussikian painted Judy's thesis as being based on a conspiracy theory.

3. Guilt by association By listing a quote from Sherri Tenpenny along with quotes from Judy's thesis, Loussikian associates Judy's thesis with Tenpenny's views, though there is no mention of Tenpenny in her thesis. By mentioning my former PhD student Michael Primero and his connection with Medical Veritas and one of its apparently bizarre beliefs, Loussikian associated me with those views. The basic technique is to juxtapose facts in a way that implies a discrediting association, without ever stating or justifying the implication.

4. Selective quotations Loussikian listed quotes from Judy's thesis in support of the conspiracy-theory framing, meanwhile not describing the key points made in her thesis.

5. Serving an agenda All frames serve an agenda. Loussikian's article happened to serve the agenda of the group SAVN. He did not mention the existence of the group or its attacks on Judy over several years, including criticisms of her thesis before it was finished.

6. Underlying assumptions Loussikian's article is built on the assumptions that there is something wrong with being critical of vaccination and that universities should not be allowing students to undertake this sort of research or allowing them to graduate. This involves an implicit rejection of the academic tradition of free inquiry.

Loussikian's treatment is based on another assumption: that a fair assessment of a PhD thesis can be carried out within 24 hours of it becoming public, that this assessment can be carried out by people without specialist qualifications in the field, and that there is no need to mention that campaigners had been attacking the student and her work for years beforehand. Loussikian's article is also based on the assumption that a newspaper article is a suitable venue for assessing scholarly work, and that scholarly norms need not be followed in condemning a major piece of scholarship.


This close scrutiny of Loussikian's article is useful in revealing two main aspects of framing: those potentially apparent to someone unfamiliar with the topic and those only accessible by delving more deeply. Framing types 2, 4 and 6 - selective quotations, loaded labels and underlying assumption that acceptance of a PhD thesis critical of standard vaccination policy is newsworthy - will be apparent to some readers. Framing type 3 - guilt by association - can be detected by readers who stop to think about whether the associations mentioned actually have any relevance. However, framing types 1 and 5 - choice of topic and serving an agenda - would not be immediately obvious to most readers. Only those who know about SAVN's activities will realise Loussikian's approach to his story matches SAVN's agenda.

Acknowledgements

I am grateful to several individuals who provided insightful comments on drafts. To protect them, I am not listing their names.

Before making this article public, I made a draft available to Kylar Loussikian and invited him to comment. He declined.

Notes

1. Several sections of my account are reproduced, verbatim or nearly so, from my analysis of a story in The Australian by Rick Morton published in January 2014. There are many parallels between the two stories, and much of the sections on context, the vaccination issue, the Australian vaccination debate, and Judy Wilyman apply equally to both stories.

2. See for example Itai Himelboim and Yehiel Limor, "Media institutions, news organizations, and the journalistic social role worldwide: a cross-national and cross-organizational study of codes of ethics," Mass Communication and Society, Vol. 14, 2011, pp. 71-92.

3. See also my blog post "An orchestrated attack on a PhD thesis".

4. Note that I use first names for people I know well and last names for others.

5. Among lengthy critiques of individual works are "Left or left behind? Heller and Feher on the peace movement," Monthly Review , Vol. 41, No. 8, January 1990, pp. 56-62; "Social construction of an 'attack on science'," Social Studies of Science , Vol. 26, No. 1, February 1996, pp. 161-173.

6. See the Australian government's National Immunisation Program Schedule, http://www.immunise.health.gov.au/internet/immunise/publishing.nsf/Content/national-immunisation-program-schedule

7. For example, F. E. Andre, R. Booy, H. L. Bock, et al., "Vaccination greatly reduces disease, disability, death and inequity worldwide," Journal of the World Health Organization, Vol. 86, No. 2, 2008, pp. 140-146; Paul A. Offit and Louis M. Bell, Vaccines: What You Should Know, 3rd edition (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley, 2003).

8 For example, Louise Kuo Habakus and Mary Holland (eds.), Vaccine Epidemic: How Corporate Greed, Biased Science, and Coercive Government Threaten Our Human Rights, Our Health, and Our Children (New York: Skyhorse, 2011); Richard Halvorsen, The Truth about Vaccines: How We Are Used as Guinea Pigs without Knowing It (London: Gibson Square, 2007).

9. See, for example, James Colgrove, State of Immunity: The Politics of Vaccination in Twentieth-Century America (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2006).

10. In 2014, the NSW Department of Fair Trading forced the AVN to change its name, which it did, to Australian Vaccination-skeptics Network, retaining the acronym AVN.

11. As of January 2016, SAVN's Facebook page gave its name as Stop the Australian (Anti)Vaccination Network.

12. I have documented SAVN's methods in a number of articles. See for example "Debating vaccination", "Online onslaught" and "Censorship and free speech in scientific controversies".

13. In questions sent to me and to the university, the way he was framing the story was apparent, with a focus on alleged inadequacies in Judy's thesis.

14. John Abraham, Science, Politics and the Pharmaceutical Industry: Controversy and Bias in Drug Regulation (London: UCL Press, 1995); Marcia Angell, The Truth about the Drug Companies: How They Deceive Us and What to Do about It (New York: Random House, 2005); John Braithwaite, Corporate Crime in the Pharmaceutical Industry (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1984); Ben Goldacre, Bad Pharma: How Drug Companies Mislead Doctors and Harm Patients (London: Fourth Estate, 2012); Peter C. Gøtzsche, Deadly Medicines and Organised Crime: How Big Pharma Has Corrupted Healthcare (London: Radcliffe Publishing, 2013); Jerome P. Kassirer, On the Take: How Medicine's Complicity with Big Business Can Endanger Your Health (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).

15. Kathryn Flynn, one of my PhD students, wrote her thesis on this topic. It is the definitive treatment. Medical Fraud and Inappropriate Practice in Medibank and Medicare, Australia 1975-1995 (University of Wollongong PhD thesis, 2004), http://ro.uow.edu.au/theses/2071/. On the US situation, see Malcolm K. Sparrow, License to Steal: How Fraud Bleeds America's Health Care System (Boulder, CO: Westview, 2000).

16. Scott Frickel et al., "Undone science: charting social movement and civil society challenges to research agenda setting," Science, Technology, & Human Values, Vol. 35, No. 4, 2010, pp. 444-473; David Hess, Alternative Pathways in Science and Industry: Activism, Innovation, and the Environment in an Era of Globalization (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006).

17. Here, I analyse only Loussikian's first article about Judy's thesis. Subsequent articles could be analysed similarly, with the added dimension that Loussikian's initial 13 January article was instrumental in stimulating outrage about which he then reported subsequently.

Aside from The Australian, there seems to have been little interest in this story in other mass media, with none of them pursuing it in any depth.

18. See "Debating vaccination", in which I analyse SAVN's claims about AVN conspiracy beliefs. See also "Caught in the vaccination wars": part 2 and part 3.

19. A sample of scholarly writing about conspiracy theories: Mark Fenster, Conspiracy Theories: Secrecy and Power in American Culture, revised and updated edition(Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2008); Kurtis Hagan, “Conspiracy theories and stylized facts,” Journal for Peace and Justice Studies, Vol. 21, No. 2, 2011, pp. 3-22; Brian L. Keeley, “Of conspiracy theories,” Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 96, No. 3, March 1999, pp. 109–126; Cass R. Sunstein and Adrian Vermeule, “Conspiracy theories: causes and cures,” Journal of Political Philosophy, Vol. 17, No. 2, 2009, pp. 202–227.

20. Judy commented that although many supporters of vaccination, including Australian health departments, dismiss individual reports about adverse effects of vaccination as being anecdotal, parents were promoting vaccines on the basis of one child's experience of a disease. Her comment about this use of anecdotal evidence was misinterpreted as her saying the child's illness was itself anecdotal, and she was furiously condemned.

21. My comments here are critical primarily of Dwyer's comments, as quoted. Loussikian chose to quote Dwyer, thereby providing authoritative support for his framing.

22. I supervised Michael's PhD from 1999-2002. His official topic was "The 'politics' of vaccination: a scientific controversy analysis"; Michael also had other interests besides vaccination. However, due to other commitments, he discontinued his candidature. Subsequently I only heard from Michael every few years, and hadn't kept up with his activities. After Rick Morton's article appeared in 2014, Michael contacted me. Among other points, he noted that during his PhD candidature we had never discussed his association with Medical Veritas.

23. I have been supervisor for more than 35 PhD students, of whom 25 have graduated, 9 discontinued and several are current: see "Brian Martin: PhD student supervision," http://www.bmartin.cc/others/supervision.html. Most of these were University of Wollongong students for whom I was principal supervisor, plus a few students at other universities for whom I was a key external supervisor. For some of the students, I was supervisor for only part of their candidature. I have not counted students at the University of Wollongong for whom I have been an associate supervisor but not the principal supervisor.

A casual inspection of my students' thesis topics shows a wide diversity, including quite a few addressing controversial scientific issues. Two of my students, for example, studied debates over nuclear power. Loussikian creates an impression of a special interest in vaccination by not mentioning the full spectrum of my students' topics. Incidentally, I have never heard of another supervisor who lists all PhD students supervised, including ones who did not complete their degrees. Loussikian took advantage of my online information about supervision, selecting only what served his frame.

24. The complications that can arise from doing a "symmetrical" analysis of a public controversies were canvassed in Pam Scott, Evelleen Richards and Brian Martin, "Captives of controversy: the myth of the neutral social researcher in contemporary scientific controversies," Science, Technology, & Human Values , Vol. 15, No. 4, Fall 1990, pp. 474-494.

25. To reiterate: I am neither a proponent nor an opponent of vaccination. My primary interests in the vaccination issue are to defend free speech in the public debate and to understand strategies used in scientific controversies. This is spelled out in many of my publications on the vaccination controversy.