Media reports of links between MMR and autism: a discourse analysis

O'Dell, Lindsay and Brownlow, Charlotte (2005). Media reports of links between MMR and autism: a discourse analysis. British Journal of Learning Disabilities, 33(4) pp. 194–199.



This paper details an analysis of BBC reporting of the proposed links between MMR and autism. The study aimed to identify main issues arising from the media reports into the link between MMR and the development of autism, and how these contribute to common understandings about people with autism. The study employed a form of discourse analysis to discuss how the media debates represent people with autism and perceived risks from the MMR vaccination. Sources were collected from the BBC website, and comprised of both Internet pages and reports from radio programmes broadcast by the BBC. The analysis focuses on reports around the time of the British Prime Minister's (and his family's) decision to not disclose whether their youngest son was given the disputed triple vaccine. A key issue arising from the analysis is the ways in which science is used to argue for both the safeness of the vaccine and also the dangerousness of it. Within the media debate of the safeness/dangerousness of the vaccine priority is accorded to the experiences of families who feel directly affected by the dangerousness of the vaccine. Thus whilst scientific explanation retains its powerful position in validating and legitimating the 'truth' in this instance experiential knowledge takes priority. The reports draw on parental fear of 'damage' to their children, where 'damage' is constituted as the onset of autism following vaccination. Implicit within the debate is the notion that an autistic child/adult is less acceptable than a (supposedly) 'normal' child. The issues emerging from the analysis are in sharp contrast to our previous research with adults with autism. While the development of an autistic identity is often seen as a problem for parents and 'experts' researching autism, such identities can be highly valued by those so labelled.

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