Girls Like Sports, But Like Boys Better. Huh?

by Rick Austin July 26, 2012 01:54 PM

You take your insights where you find ‘em, I say. On Gawker, the online gossip rag, of all places, there’s an entertaining deconstruction of what happens when scientific research gets pulped, fed to the news media, and regurgitated in various amusing forms.


Hamilton Nolan, Gawker’s designated intellectual, follows this study on women’s sports and television viewing habits through the Science News Cycle, and he finds that the resulting distortions are predictable: “You may be surprised to learn that it appears that the media and meta-media, through a combination of laziness, sensationalism, and ignorance, may have misstated the results of a scientific study!” he writes.


Irony aside, this is a perfect illustration of the time demands and knowledge limitations of the news media colliding with the rigid structure and inherent conservatism of the scientific method. This (qualitative) study used focus group interviews with 19 women as the jumping off point for a purely theoretical discussion of leisure activities, family interactions, and the culture of sports in the United States.


The Los Angeles Times headline writer reduced this to: “Wives watch sports for husband’s sake, study reports.” Note the similarity to the Science News Cycle headline: “A Causes B, Say Scientists.” From there, it’s an easy flaming, spiral crash-dive into “Ladies Only Watch Sports Because it Makes the Boys Like Them, Says Stupid Study” and “Fun Fact: Girls Only Like Sports To Impress Boys!”


Hamilton Nolan sums up the problem of misinterpretation nicely:


“It is possible for scientific or academic research studies to be wrong. But they must be wrong for a reason. The fact that their conclusions just rub us the wrong way is not a reason. It is possible that our instincts have been proven wrong, by the science at hand. It is also possible, as we have seen, that we do not actually understand the science at hand — possibly because we're relying on a secondhand interpretation of it, which has been misstated or exaggerated or twisted in some way. Let's not kid ourselves into thinking that we have spotted what the professionals could not, due to our own incisive brilliance, as professional writers.


Sometimes it's better to just stick to jokes.”


So, that’s why researchers hate to talk to journalists. Even with the best of intentions, the limitations of the journalistic form pretty much guarantee at best, misleading, and at worst, disastrous results.


What’s the solution? Let me know your thoughts in the comments.

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First Thing We Do, Let’s Kill All the Headline Writers

by Rick Austin February 13, 2012 03:05 PM

It’s the headline writers who are making us all stupid, and I think sports medicine specialist Carol Torgan agrees with me. She’s on the editorial panel for Health News Review, and she recently blogged about one of her pet peeves, the “exercise pill.”


She points out a variety of ridiculous headline claims from myriad publications, including Scientific American, the New York Times, and BBC News. I’ve blogged previously about sensational headline splashes that frequently bear little or no relation to the articles they’re promoting. It’s kind of like when The National Enquirer (not that I’ve ever looked at it) trumpets, “Oprah Heart Attack Drama” and the accompanying article turns out to be Oprah’s aunt’s cousin’s step-granddaughter visited the emergency room complaining of chest pains and was sent home with antacids.


There are two negative effects operating here. First, when a reputable publication like Scientific American or the New York Times makes a play for more reader’s eyeballs, uncritical readers take the headlines at face value and accept that there is a miraculous breakthrough. Second, readers who take the time to read the article and do some critical thinking are confused and put off by the gulf between the headline and the actual details.


Crazy headlines are par for the course at places like TMZ and Gawker, where they’re totally transparent about their quest for more eyeballs and more mouse-clicks. But should mainstream publications be paying more attention to their impact on readers, particularly with dense scientific and medical reporting?


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Research and the News Beast

by Shannon Rasp September 15, 2010 09:12 AM

We’ve all seen the commercials for the nightly news: “Exclusively on Channel 5 … the common household item that can cause death!” Of course, we all know that there are literally dozens of things in every house right now that could somehow cause death – bleach, cleansers, bug spray, that six month-old yogurt lurking somewhere in my refrigerator – but, in today’s 24-hour news cycle, in which everyone is competing for readers and viewers, the old maxim “if it bleeds, it leads” has never been more true.


What this has resulted in is reporters needing the “sexy” headline, every time. This means that research is often simplified to the extent that what is being reported isn’t actually what the researchers found, and any possible negative effect is blown out of proportion in an effort to get people to watch or read. Recent examples of this include “Swimming in Chlorinated Pools Can Lead to Cancer” and “Twilight’ Altering Teen Minds?” And most of us remember the undeserved hype given to H1N1.


While the Internet is notorious for the misinformation found in it, there are still sites that take a critical look at these stories. One of the sites I visit regularly, Gawker, just posted an article highlighting an Associated Press story about a drug-resistant “superbug” that began with the sentence, “An infectious-disease nightmare is unfolding.” How so? Three people in the United States and two others in Canada who recently received health care in India got urinary or abdominal infections. Geez, all I have to do is think about Indian food and my stomach starts reacting negatively!


“It's been way too long since we had a nice public health panic, so thank God the AP has alerted us to the problem of ‘drug-resistant superbugs,’ which, bolstered by ‘an alarming new gene’ that makes them resistant to most antibiotics, have already infected three whole people in the United States and two in Canada,” wrote the Gawker reporter, Max Read. “None of them have died, but they totally could have! Probably! I mean, eventually, if they hadn't been successfully treated, they definitely would have died.”


It’s played for laughs, of course, but the scare tactic the story highlights can have real consequences. People can start to overuse antibiotics, lessening their effectiveness. They can avoid going to the hospital when it’s necessary, out of fear of the “superbugs” that are lying in wait for them.


We live in an age of information overload, and people often don’t take the time to look at the news they receive critically. Our job, as KT professionals, is to help people make sense of the information they receive. We are responsible for getting information out there to the public or legislators or whoever our audience is in a timely, understandable manner. Now that the news beast needs feeding on a constant basis, our jobs have never been more important.

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