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"Try not to be an idiot": How the editor of the Toronto Star responds to critics

Since we published a story at Vox about the Toronto Star's fear-mongering and bungling of their HPV vaccine coverage yesterday, the Star's editor-in-chief Michael Cooke has been silent.

But before that, he was fighting with other critics of the story on social media. Here's how the editor of the most-read newspaper in Canada — and one of the largest in North America — responds to criticism and questions. In public. On Twitter.

It's not only on social media that Cooke has been showing off his charm and understanding of accountability in journalism. Let's just go over the facts:

  1. Cooke signed off on a story that completely misrepresented the data about the harms of the HPV vaccine, and then — in emails to me and comments to others — he and the Star's public editor denied that the story suggests the vaccine is harmful. Note: the title of the piece is, "A Wonder Drug's Dark Side." The story features a collection of terrible anecdotes about women who the Star determined may have been harmed by the vaccine. Under that headline. (To understand more on why the story was just misleading, read here and here. And tell your friends who were scared off the vaccine after reading the Star story.)
  2. Cooke displayed his charm again in emails to me, dismissing the questions I raised in letters of concern. From my story yesterday:

    star

  3. The Star responded to the criticisms of Canadian ob-gyn Jen Gunter in a similar fashion. When she flagged her concerns about the story, she wasn't invited to write an op-ed or publish a letter. Instead, she was smeared by one of the Star's writers, Heather Mallick, in a completely incomprehensible column. A highlight:

    "Here's a tip: don't read a website run by a rural doctor whose slogan is "wielding the lasso of truth."

  4. That column — and the pseudoscience quality of the Star's journalism about the HPV vaccine — was enough to provoke the ire of Bad Science watchdog and physician Ben Goldacre:

  5. It has now been a week since the story debuted, and and army of other doctors, researchers, and public-health professionals have been calling for a correction, such as physician and critic Dr. Yoni Freedhoff. On the radio this morning Freedhoff called the piece, "One of the worst examples of false balance journalism I've read."
  6. Despite this roaring chorus of concern, the Star has done nothing to correct the record. Unfortunately, there's no way to undo the damage from that irresponsible story. It'll live forever online. But there's still time for accountability. The Star has a duty to respond to this total abomination of medical journalism, and not through insults hurled by one of their columnists or, of all people, their editor-and-chief. They should promptly explain their thinking behind the piece, retract it, or run a story of the same size and weight of the original, explaining exactly how they misled their readers with suggestions that a vaccine that could have saved their lives and prevented cancer will damage them.