Wednesday February 11, 2015

'We failed.' Toronto Star publisher says the paper's HPV vaccine article let down readers

From the front page of The Toronto Star from February 5, 2015.

From the front page of The Toronto Star from February 5, 2015. (CBC)

Listen 6:41

For a week, The Toronto Star has been taking criticism over a story detailing health problems experienced by young women after they took the HPV vaccine. Some in the medical community called it alarmist and scientifically-unsound. The publisher, John Cruickshank, now says the paper failed the public and let them down.

Cruickshank tells As It Happens host Carol Off that he takes responsibility for the way the story was presented. He says editor-in-chief Michael Cooke (pictured below) also takes responsibility.

Michael Cooke

Michael Cooke

"We failed in this case. We let down. And it was in the management of the story at the top," he says.
Cruickshank says the headline -- "A wonder drug's dark side" -- was wrong. That the front page play for the story was a mistake. And he notes that the piece mentions several times that the paper has no evidence that the anecdotes it presented were caused by the HPV vaccine Gardasil.

He says he understands why readers would wrongly take away from the piece that the drug is dangerous.
Among other anecdotes, the piece detailed, with photos, how one young woman died after taking the vaccine and how another has tubes up her nose.

"I do think that kind of dictates how people will read the piece," he says. "It's especially troubling that the treatment was in that way during this period that there is an extraordinary debate over inoculations, frankly, between science and nonsense. And we have, at this newspaper, always been on the side of science."

Cruickshank says that the paper has been publishing a series of pieces over the past few years about oversight of the pharmaceutical industry and that some drugs are no longer available in Canada because of that reporting. 

"This was part of that, but this piece didn't get the thought in the presentation that it should have," he says.
He also notes that the anecdotes in the HPV article were brought to the paper by doctors.

In the days between when the article was published and today's interview with Cruikshank, two Star employees have lashed out at critics.

Columnist Heather Mallick (below) dismissed Dr. Jen Gunter's criticisms of the reporting, writing: "Here's a tip: don't read a website run by a rural doctor whose slogan is 'wielding the lasso of truth.'" And editor-in-chief Michael Cooke told Vox reporter Julia Belluz, "Stop gargling our bathwater and take the energy to run yourself your own, fresh tub." Cooke also called a reader an "idiot" on Twitter.

Heather Mallick

Heather Mallick


Cruickshank notes that Mallick is free to write what she wishes and was not asked by The Star's editors to take such a position. He says Cooke has agreed that his comments were not "a proper response."

He declines to comment on what damage the piece may have done, but says "we'll focus on doing better in the future."

On Thursday, the paper published a correction, only to face more criticism over its presentation. 

As for the original Toronto Star HPV story, it is still published online with some changes (updated on Feb. 13th, 2014). Mallick's "rural doctor" comment still appears online.