Katie Couric Ditches Journalism for Drama in Manipulative HPV Vaccine Story

Is the HPV vaccine Gardasil a life saver or a killer? That was the question asked this week on Katie Couric’s new talk show. In a surprise move for the well-respected journalist, it was unfortunately a debate that was dangerously stacked to play up drama, fears and emotional manipulation at the expense of scientific facts.

Gardasil, the vaccine that can prevent many strains of human papillomavirus (HPV) diseases most responsible for causing genital warts and often cervical cancer, has been given to millions of pre-teen and teen girls as a means of protecting them from the dangerous sexually transmitted infection (STI). From the moment it was introduced, however, it was the focus of massive attacks, primarily from those who opposed anything that they felt could lead to teens potentially having sex, who saw the vaccine as a red light and a “license to have sex.”

Social conservatives continued to rally against Gardasil, in many cases making up completely fabricated “side effects,” such as Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann’s infamous claim during the 2012 GOP primary that it caused “mental retardation” in a young woman who had the vaccine. Other Republicans — such as Bachmann’s rival, Texas Governor Rick Perry — embraced the vaccine as a way of protecting women from one of the most deadly forms of cancer, with Perry going as far as to mandate it for all Texas preteen girls (a move that some think was less altruistic and more due to close ties with the manufacturer of the vaccine).

Still, for years opponents of the vaccine have kept up their false claims. Some say that 100 have been killed and 20,000 harmed by the drug, which one Forbes writer explains is a common perception of any vaccine on the market, with thousands of reports of incidents that occur post vaccination but can’t actually be linked to being caused by the vaccine itself. “You can’t directly link any of those adverse events or deaths directly to the vaccines, any more than you could blame it on my morning coffee if I got hit by a truck later today,” wrote Matthew Herper, who drilled down the number to just a few dozen deaths that were possibly related and even then most of them still unlikely.

As Herper noted, though, any vaccine is going to have an adverse effect in a small amount of the population. It was that small pocket that Couric highlighted on her show, giving them almost free reign through the program to connect their stories to the process of being vaccinated, to make blanket statements implying that their experience wasn’t a small exception and to provide little balance from anyone who explained that the vast majority of those who are vaccinated are unaffected or that the overall benefits massively outweigh the small risks.

“On the anti-vaccine side: Couric’s guests included a mother whose daughter died of undetermined causes 18 days after getting the vaccination; another mother and her daughter, who came down with a hodgepodge of symptoms that sound an awful lot like depression a few days after the vaccine; and Dr. Diane Harper, a skeptic of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s push to vaccinate all girls and who is careful to avoid obvious untruths but has been criticized for her involvement in the anti-vaccination movement,” writes Amanda Marcotte at Slate. “On the pro-vaccination side, Couric only hosted one guest, Dr. Mallika Marshall, a ratio that wildly underplays how dominant the pro-vaccination opinion is in the medical profession. Marshall was only given a few minutes to state that vaccines are safe and that the side effects mentioned by other guests were probably unrelated to the vaccine.”

“It is so sad that a journalist has such disregard for facts,” said Dr. Jen Gunter, an OB/GYN and author, via email. “A mother believing her child was harmed isn’t fact. Why didn’t Couric insist on treating physicians and medical records? It was disgraceful. There is no controversy about the safety of the HPV vaccine. There were great things for her to cover, like the different HPV types in African American women. This I could see as a controversy. Why are we just finding out about it now? But otherwise, shame on you, Katie Couric.”

By promoting this one-sided, skewed version of the Gardasil story on her program, and letting the story go mostly unchallenged, Couric gives an implied endorsement to her guests’ biased and unfounded claims. From a journalist with such an extensive history of real reporting, her audience expects and deserves better.

Photo credit: Thinkstock


Dale O.

Interesting to note that if one refused to have vaccinations for a period of, say, the next one hundred years, one would certainly see an increase in the cases of deaths from severe illnesses, not to mention the numbers of people disabled by Polio, for example.

Frank Hanline
Frank Hanline3 years ago

@ Jodi:

How many people die of flu shots every year?

How many die or face severe complications from getting the flu shots every year?

You work for a lawyer? Enough said.

Jodi Moss
Jodi Moss3 years ago

Here's the thing, I had no idea there was an entire program dedicated to those who have adverse reactions to immunizations and vaccines until I began working for a great attorney who has been working with these patients for years in the National Injury Compensation Program. This program is there to help those patients who have experienced these horrendous side effects. There are guidelines and not everyone meets those guidelines. There is a 3 year statute of limitations and symptoms must last for at least 6 months. Those are the two major factors. I am not sure how they decided 3 years was adequate because I speak with a ton of parents whose daughters were vaccinated in 2007-2009 that are having serious symptoms and there is nothing we can do to help them. Plus, these symptoms and adverse reactions are UNDER REPORTED!! The government and manufacturers aren't going to listen to complaints unless they see it on paper and in numbers.

As a mom, my daughter had the vaccine without consequences, but I felt pushed into allowing it because of all of the hype of Gardisil and how it would protect her, etc. As parents AND patients, we are supposed to make decisions based on informed consent. That is generally not what happens. We are not given time to research Influenza vaccines, Tetanus, Dtap, Pertussis and so on.

As a paralegal that works with these patients/clients, we have just as many, if not MORE that experience life-threatening and life altering disease processes,

Frank Hanline
Frank Hanline3 years ago

Wow, I see the anti-vaxers are out in all their insipid glory.

If you're looking for stories and innuendo, talk to the anti-vax crowd

If you're looking for reality and evidence, get the vaccinations

Ignorance is bliss, explains the anti-vax drones

Connie S.
Connie S3 years ago

I would never subject my daughter or any girl I love to big pharma money making snake oil. I've heard fellow doctor's who were editors of New England Journal of Medicine's editors in chief speak to the sham research done on pharmas drugs and vaccines, often funded by the companies themselves, to push yet another pill for profit regardless of the effects on the innocents they harm.

Nikolas Karman
Nikolas K3 years ago

Our bodies are having a hell of a job fighting these diseases because the pharmacutical mafia keep engineering them and our immune system cannot keep up fast enough or just plane shuts down through overload.

Nikolas Karman
Nikolas K3 years ago

Funny that vaccines have been touted as the cure for God stuffing up when he creates children in his image since the medical mafia saw the big bucks to be made.

Bianca Strom
Bianca Loran3 years ago

so what about this:
Dr. Diane Harper was the lead researcher in the development of the human papilloma virus (HPV) vaccines, Gardasil™ and Cervarix™. She is now the latest in a long string of experts who are pressing the red alert button on the devastating consequences and irrelevancy of these vaccines. Dr. Harper made her surprising confession at the 4th International Converence on Vaccination which took place in Reston, Virginia. Her speech, which was originally intended to promote the benefits of the vaccines, took a 180-degree turn when she chose instead to clean her conscience about the deadly vaccines so she “could sleep at night”.


John B.
John B3 years ago

All I know about Gardisil is that Merck gave it to India to "help" them and after the initial run India gave it back due to too many deaths from the drug.

I think someone should really look into Robin Marty as the way the headline reads it is though there is something wrong with airing data both pro and con about a drug. I did not see Couric's show but the author of this article slants it to condemn her actions because she did not stand up for the latest snake oil.