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PBS Ombudsman

The Mailbag

This week's mailbag produced half-a-dozen or so letters from viewers who were angry at what they saw as PBS promotion of children being vaccinated against the flu virus, and in some cases, the H1N1 strain of that virus. Their ire was directed at an episode this week of "Sid the Science Kid" titled "Getting a Shot: You Can Do It." The "Sid" series has become a popular morning TV program for pre-schoolers since its premier last year. The series is made up of 40 half-hour episodes and is co-produced by The Jim Henson Company and PBS-member station KCET in Los Angeles.

The episode dealt with youngsters getting vaccinated, something that is depicted as good for them and good for their friends and community. It very carefully, it seems to me, focused on the flu vaccination and did not mention swine flu by name or H1N1, although it does mention at two points the "new flu virus" and the "new flu vaccination." Rather, its central melody sung by the animated Sid and his pals talked about "stopping that virus, that's our goal." They go on to sing, "The virus won't spread if we don't let it, so roll up your sleeve and come and get it" and then later add, "this vaccination is a great opportunity."

Those viewers who wrote were, for the most part, objecting to flu vaccinations generally and the message for children and parents that they felt was conveyed by the program. Given the timing of the program and the enormous publicity being given to the spread of the swine flu and the considerable controversy surrounding the use of a vaccine for that specific strain, the program also struck me, and at least one of those who wrote, as also meant to boost the use of that H1N1 vaccine. This is not a series that I would ordinarily watch. I did so because of the viewer letters and I did come away feeling that certainly one unstated message was to encourage vaccination against H1N1.

When I asked PBS's director of children's programming, Paul Siefken, about this, he said the episode is not an advocacy film about getting the H1N1 shot but rather educational in the sense that the concept of the series is to explore the science behind relevant experiences for many children and the vast majority of kids get vaccinations of all kinds. And, of course, the topic was timely since it is also the annual flu season. So it turned out to be an interesting way and time to talk about vaccines. Siefken adds that the program is never presented as anything but parental choice.

The episode must also have struck others as linked to the battle over the swine flu vaccine. Among the sponsorships for the program is a grant from the Department of Health and Human Services. The HHS grant to "Sid the Science Kid" was also pointed out in a lengthy Newsweek magazine article this week about the government going on "an unprecedented multimedia information campaign" to fight back against "both H1N1 and the lies and misperceptions about the disease."

The magazine reports that the show's executive producer, Lisa Henson, said that she and her colleagues were already interested in doing a show on the topic, but it was HHS's sponsorship that allowed them to produce it on a pushed-up schedule in time for flu season. Siefken said that funding for the program is sought by the producers but that he was not aware of any pressure to mention the H1N1. "There is a flu season every year and vaccination is extremely useful to the majority of parents out there," he said.

That may be so, but perhaps because of the novelty and publicity about this particular strain, polls show that half the population of parents with young children may be choosing not to take this shot even though the overwhelming majority of authoritative information about it from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other sources is that it is safe. The respected FactCheck.org says "claims that 'swine flu' vaccine is dangerous range from seriously overblown to flat-out false" in a detailed and up-to-date analysis posted this month.

On balance, I thought this program was a good, smart and timely public service, but perhaps too clever, at least as I viewed it, in trying to get a specific message across without being specific about what that message was. Perhaps it is precisely because the Sid series is widely viewed as good and educational, and because it is on PBS — which seeks to engender trust among kids and their parents — that you can understand how at least some parents feel as though they were ambushed by a message they perceived as going beyond getting a flu shot.

What follows now are three segments. The first includes the letters from viewers. Then comes the response to those letters from PBS Viewer Services. Then comes some additional explanation from PBS vice president for communications, Lea Sloan, in response to some questions of mine.

Here Are the Letters

It is shameful that PBS Kids is pushing the flu shot issue and agenda of the CDC on 3-year-old children on Sid the Science Kid. You should let parents make their own decisions and not imply that parents are negligent or do not love their children if they do not vaccinate.

Natick, MA

There was an episode of Sid the Science Kid which featured the promotion of flu shots. My baby and I were injured by vaccines in 2007. I don't appreciate this bogus information being displayed for millions of viewers to see. I feel like we are being assaulted all over again. Vaccine injury and death are very real and for you to pass it off like these parents are vaccinating out of sheer "love" for their children is not only ignorant, but downright dangerous . . . start investigating the ingredients in the flu shot. You'll be surprised to find that one of them (beta propiolactone) has been proven by OSHA to cause cancer in humans. Please get educated!! Read "Fear of the Invisible" by Janine Roberts to find out about the vaccine contaminants and what they are doing to our health. Our government officials are fully aware of it and making a killing (no pun intended).

Dawn Crim, Concord, NH

Has the once impenetrable PBS shield of independent programming finally been corrupted by propaganda seekers? I couldn't believe my eyes when I watched in horror as "Sid the Science Kid" and his made up friends get a flu vaccine. As the parent of a child, and yes, as one of many who believes in the link between autism and vaccines, I take offense to allowing such manipulative rubbish into my household. Either put the superb Mister Rogers' Neighborhood back on the air and quit playing with kids' minds or come clean with your viewers and admit that independent programming and PBS no longer jive.

E. Chin, Sandy Hook, CT

Please do not use PBS to send a message about vaccines to our children. There is clearly a variety of opinions about vaccines, especially the swine flu vaccine. Parents should be educating their children about this themselves.

Marietta, GA

I want you to know that the vaccine pushing on your programs are horrible and I will not be watching anymore. It is against my moral and spiritual beliefs to vaccinate. My children would watch Sid the science kid but not anymore. It is wrong for you to take such a stand not everyone wants aborted fetus tissue and toxic chemicals forced into them via "shot" and getting them does NOT equal immunity or healthy. Please do not force this on anyone.

Anne Z, Liberty Twp., OH

I CANNOT believe that Sid the Science Kid was pushing flu shots on the show. This is the worst form of brainwashing I've seen on a child's program to date. Not only are flu shots a miserable representation of science effectiveness, they are loaded with mercury and formaldehyde. I can't wait to see what Sid is pushing next. Maybe, "Yeah! Let's eat high fructose corn syrup!"

Caro, MI

And the Response from PBS Viewer Services

"We regret that you were disappointed with this episode of the series. We have shared your comments with the producers and with PBS' programming executives.

"PBS understands that not every family will choose vaccination and that this is a decision for parents to make. In the episode, the teacher points out that everyone must have a parental consent form in order to get a shot. This program is about the science behind vaccinations, how antibodies work to immunize the body and staying healthy. As a character who explores the science behind the everyday experiences of preschoolers, Sid is a perfect guide to help children understand the science behind germs, viruses and vaccines. The episode also addresses topics such as sneezing into your elbow, effective hand washing and disinfecting common household surfaces to prevent the spread of germs. During a time of year when children hear a great deal about illness and ways to stay healthy, this program offers age-appropriate answers to their questions, including why some people receive vaccinations. It is designed to be relevant for every flu season or other times when a child may have questions about getting sick or getting a shot.

"All PBS KIDS content is created in conjunction with subject experts. For 'Getting a Shot,' the producers worked directly with medical and educational advisors, including Cyrus Rangan, M.D. FAAP ACMT, who is Director of the Toxics Epidemiology Program at the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services, Public Health, as well as Moisés Román, who serves as the Diversity in Action Chair for the California Association for the Education of Young Children as well as Curriculum Coordinator for UCLA Early Care and Education.

"PBS KIDS helps preschoolers navigate through challenging life experiences, such as getting a shot. Our series have also covered such topics as divorce, a new sibling in the house or losing loved ones. We recognize that these issues may directly affect a child or that they may have been introduced by a friend or classmate.

"Parents, of course, want their children to be healthy, and they will, and should, choose whether or not their children are vaccinated. Children want age-appropriate answers to their questions, including why some people get shots. PBS wants to help create an informed society, foster dialogue, encourage kids to understand their world and empower parents to make choices for their families. An informed citizenry is crucial to our democracy. It's important that people talk about issues that affect their families."

More from PBS

In response to further questions from me about possible advocacy and funding issues, Lea Sloan, PBS vice president for communications, said:

"We emphasize that it is the choice and decision of parents. The episode was created as a way to help children understand what they or their friends/classmates are going through, overcome fears they may have around getting a shot if their families choose to do so, and answer questions they may have around the flu or getting a shot.

"The Jim Henson Company followed specific PBS guidelines to insure editorial independence. PBS guidelines do not allow funders to drive editorial content, thus HHS did not contribute to or review scripts, but underwriters/funders often actively participate in activities to promote the program.

"HHS is not the majority funder for this episode. SID THE SCIENCE KID 'Getting a Shot: You Can Do It!' is funded by First 5 California, The Boeing Company, The Rose Hills Foundation and The Arthur Vining Davis Foundations, with additional funding from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and The Association for Prevention Teaching and Research."

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