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Journalistic Cancer at ProPublica

I didn’t intend to expose anything or pull back any rocks to see what lurked under them.  I simply had a concern about an article.  I wanted to reconcile some reporting that called a valid situation “junk science.”  The topic was parental alienation, and it’s something that I had some firsthand knowledge in.  It was a situation I was forced to walk through – but it has more or less passed for me.

The research is clear, focused, and, relatively speaking, incontrovertible.  Parental alienation exists where one parent causes a child or children to dislike the other parent.  I’d written about the pathway to parental alienation that I saw as I researched it years ago.

Still, my initial note to the author was gentle: a request to speak about the article as written and to better understand the journalist’s perspective.  There was no response.  After waiting over a week, I dropped a note to the editor-in-chief with my concerns attached.  I didn’t hear back from him but instead received a note from the author of the article.

The note was pleasant and had her manager copied.  The problem was that the email message directly contradicted the article.  The words of confirmation that parental alienation was a real issue ran directly against the characterization in the article.  One cannot have a valid phenomenon and at the same time have “junk science” – the term the article uses.

In the short discussion, there was a reaffirmation that neither the World Health Organization (WHO) in its ICD codes nor the American Psychological Association (APA) in their DSM-V recognized it as a syndrome.  This is a space that I’m also too familiar with.

In the case of burnout, WHO acknowledges it as a workplace condition – but the APA fails to recognize it.  There are good reasons to believe that WHO’s inclusion isn’t in the right spot, because it constrains burnout to work-related situations, yet many people experience burnout outside of their occupation.  In fact, in its original expression, it was about avocation instead of vocation.  It was the way that Freudenberger and his colleagues were serving and how they felt inadequate results in that service.  (Our website has numerous free resources to understand and respond to burnout in yourself and others.)

It’s not surprising that WHO and APA don’t directly recognize parental alienation, nor is it incontrovertible evidence of its failure to exist.  Nassim Taleb would explain in The Black Swan that the absence of something doesn’t prove that it doesn’t exist.  However, let’s look more closely at the claims that neither APA nor WHO accept it.

Parental alienation doesn’t fit the goal of either WHO’s ICD nor APA’s DSM-V.  Both include criteria that are primarily reserved for individuals.  ICD codes are most frequently used for billing.  The DSM is similarly used for mental health billing.  They’re fundamentally focused on the individual, but parental alienation is a three-party relational problem.  The argument was made that the DSM includes some relational issues – and that’s true.  However, the number of relational codes is limited – and typically requires a primary diagnosis code.

Consider factitious disorder by proxy – what was historically known as Munchhausen by proxy.  The “by proxy” part is a clear indication that it’s not a single party diagnostic code.  However, it’s premised on the harm to an individual.

As I got deeper into the weeds, I found two diagnostic codes for DSM-V that corresponded to parental alienation.  V995.51 is “Child Psychological Abuse” and V61.29 “Child Affected by Parental Relationship Distress.”  Neither directly speaks to parental alienation – but both do cover the condition.

The ProPublica article says that WHO denounced parental alienation, but they actually said, “During the development of ICD-11, a decision was made not to include the concept and terminology of ‘parental alienation’ in the classification, because it is not a health care term.”  That isn’t a denouncement.  It’s a statement of scope.

ProPublica also links to a National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges article and paper, “Navigating Custody & Visitation Evaluations in Cases with Domestic Violence: A Judge’s Guide.”  Ultimately, this paper incorrectly states the APA position on the matter, confusing the narrower Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS) with the broader category of parental alienation.  In the APA definition for PAS, it states, “Despite the significant controversy surrounding this syndrome, the more generalized concept of parental alienation often is viewed as a legitimate dynamic in many family situations, describing the harm done to a child’s security with one caregiver as a result of exposure to another caregiver’s unfavorable actions toward or criticism of that person.”

There are two important issues here.  First, the scope of the document is domestic violence – something that is outside of the concept of parental alienation.  Quoting it seems like cherry picking.  (See Mastering Logical Fallacies for a deeper explanation.)  Second, admission of parental alienation in court cases is substantially increasing, as Parental Alienation: An Evidence-Based Approach clearly indicates.

The final evidence is a UN report, titled “Custody, violence against women and violence against children.”  Page 3 explains, “There is no commonly accepted clinical or scientific definition of ‘parental alienation’. Broadly speaking, parental alienation is understood to refer to deliberate or unintentional acts that cause unwarranted rejection by the child towards one of the parents, usually the father.”  There are working definitions for parental alienation as explained in the book referenced above.  Admittedly, greater clarity is better.  The UN report continues in the next paragraph to confuse PAS and parental alienation.  It seems the distinction was lost on the UN Human Rights Council as well.

The argument that was made to me during the email exchange with the editorial management at ProPublica that the research for the article included the work of Dr. Paul Fink.  He’d written an article in 2010 claiming PAS wasn’t a thing.  Of course, the way it was presented to me was that the author of the article had spoken with the Dr. Fink – something that would have been impossible given his death nine years before the ProPublica article published.  The response was clarified that they didn’t intend to imply that the author had spoken with him.  I responded with a meta analysis article “Parental Alienation in U.S. Courts, 1985 to 2018.”  For those that don’t follow, an individual article, no matter how impressive the author is, is trumped by a meta analysis of multiple articles in terms of authority.  In short, the editorial views of someone from 13 years prior aren’t that relevant any longer.

I ultimately escalated to the author’s manager, who included his own manager on the replies.  After several rounds of the data I was providing being ignored, I forwarded the whole mess to the editor-in-chief who affirmed the way that the situation was handled was in line with his expectations.

I sent an email to the board chairman.  I’ve never heard back.  (I waited 3 months.)

What does this mean?

There was a time when the profession of journalism meant something.  It meant integrity.  It meant making hard choices to tell the truth.  It doesn’t seem like the truth matters as much any longer – at least not to ProPublica.

ProPublica’s stated mission is “To expose abuses of power and betrayals of the public trust by government, business, and other institutions, using the moral force of investigative journalism to spur reform through the sustained spotlighting of wrongdoing.”  I was struck with a question: Who watches those that watch others?

It seems to me, based on the above interaction, that they’ve got their own agendas – which are resistant to the evidence.  Once they’ve formed an incorrect opinion, no amount of research will shake them from it.  So much for the basic principles of journalism.

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