A review of It Ain’t Necessarily So. By David Murray, Joel Schwartz, and S. Robert Lichter.

Rowman and Littlefield, 2001.

Back in 1986 a book appeared entitled The Media Elite by Lichter, Rothman and Lichter. The book’s thesis was that most of those in the American media were much further to the political left than were average Americans. Many Australians also realise this truth: those in the media tend to be out of touch with the values and aspirations of ordinary Australians. Moreover, those in the media tend to skew the news in the direction they want to take it. This occurs as much in what is (or is not) covered as in the way it is covered.

A new book offers plenty of documentation of this thesis. More specifically, it shows how complex scientific and social research can be skewed by the media, and the reader (or viewer) is left with a very distorted picture of what is actually going on. Indeed, statistics, surveys and scientific studies can be used in a variety of ways, both by the researchers and by the journalists who cover the stories. The result can be news reports which are in many cases alarmist, misrepresentative, or downright misleading, bordering on propaganda.

The authors offer a number of examples. A few can be mentioned here. Consider the way in which the media, and some social scientists, deal with the serious issue of rape and sexual assault. Now rape is always wrong, and always to be deplored. But sometimes advocacy groups (e.g., certain feminist groups) can try to skew the data in order to make political points. Ideology, in other words, takes over from sound science. And the result is we are fed misinformation about the extent of the problem.

For example, the authors discuss the results of one survey that offered the alarming finding that one in four women were raped or were threatened with rape. Alarming figures indeed, except when one reads the fine print (the kind of fine print that just does not make it into the newspaper reports or television stories). As it turns out, the researcher used a definition of rape that was so broad and so loose, that it greatly inflated the numbers. The truth is, most people would not consider many of the cases offered as examples of rape. Indeed, as an indication of this, 42 per cent of the women who were said to have been raped went on to have sex again with their supposed rapists.

Another example is that of child care and its effect on children. The authors examine one major study that claimed to show no adverse effects to children placed in child care. The study, of course, was front page news in America, and much of the rest of the world. However, a number of problems arise.

First, most of these social science research projects are couched in language like “tentative” or “it appears that…”, etc. Most of these studies say much more research needs to be undertaken to show really clear results. Yet these qualifications are seldom reported in the media.

Second, as the authors note, “all research findings in this area should be viewed with a certain skepticism, simply because it’s not easy to interpret infant behavior”.  There is a fair degree of subjectivity if not arbitrariness about the classification and assessment of human behavior. Different investigators can draw different conclusions from the same observed behavior. Methodological shortcomings may well be a built-in risk in such studies.

Third, there are plenty of contrary studies that could be considered, but which are usually ignored. “The central question is whether the study would have received so much attention if it had concluded that day care did indeed pose problems for the mother-infant bond.” Exactly. In Australia one regularly finds front page coverage of studies that purport to show that extended periods of day care pose no harm to children, or that divorce has no ill effects on children. Yet when a study comes out with the opposite conclusion, it is buried in the back pages, and/or relegated to a few paragraphs (if it is reported at all).

A similar example can be found in the debate about global warming. Especially with the current furore over the Kyoto Agreement, there have been regular media reports, almost all warning of global warming and our doomed future. What the media tends to ignore is the skepticism found among many scientists concerning the whole issue. Skeptics point out a number of points which seldom find their way into the media. These include the fact that most of the rise in global temperatures over the last century took place before Word War II – before the rapid increase in CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions; that satellite measurements fail to show a warming trend; and that computer modelling is very complex, involving a number of variables (consider how hard it is for experts to get tomorrow’s weather report right).

Thus the complexity and ambiguity of the science involved is often ignored or drowned out by sensationalism, hidden agendas  (anti-capitalism, eg.), and selective reporting. News coverage, in other words, often degenerates into special interest group activism, and ideological advocacy.

One last example can be mentioned, that of needle-exchange programs (NEPs). Whether as a means to reduce the spread of HIV/AIDS, or to reduce the number of heroin overdoses, such programs are routinely held up as the enlightened path to follow. And studies seem to come out on a regular basis claiming how successful such programs are. But the truth is, the case is not at all so clear cut. At best, the studies offer a “proceed with caution” approach.

Earlier studies which seemed to show the effectiveness of NEPs have been found to suffer from serious methodological limitations, such as self-reporting by drug addicts. Also, more recent studies, such as one conducted in Montreal, found that drug users who participate in NEPs actually have a higher risk of HIV infection than those who do not. But the media tends to under-report such findings, or ignore them altogether.

As the authors summarise, “In each of these cases we see the same pattern: a scientific report is seized upon, sometimes prematurely, to support a policy agenda. Then a selective reading of the evidence supplies what we have already called the Johnny Mercer method (‘accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative’) until the research can appear to justify a firm recommendation. Finally, a public relations effort is undertaken, sometimes at the researchers’ behest, to place the conclusions before the public through the proclamations of the media. Politicians take heed of the public clamor for action, and suddenly ‘science’ has supposedly endorsed a program to transform policy.”

Whether the issue is the reporting of crime statistics, breast cancer risks, causes of infant mortality, the risks of nuclear energy, or racial violence, the media loves a good story, and the more controversial the better. Thus all of us who depend so much on the media for our news and information need to be aware of some of the hidden (and not so hidden) dangers of the media, as well as  of certain individuals and groups who are happy to use the media for their own ends.  One good way to achieve this awareness is to read this book.

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