Science Reporting Skews Sex Differences

Study finds that political leanings influence newspapers' reporting on sex differences

| December 2, 2004

After analyzing articles on sex differences that appeared in 29 large-circulation U.S. newspapers, two Yale University researchers found that the political leanings of publishers and managers influence the way science gets interpreted for popular consumption -- leaving readers in a darkness they mistake for light. The researchers -- Victoria Brescoll and Marianne LaFrance -- found that conservative newspapers tend to use biology to explain those differences, while more liberal newspapers explain them in terms of socio-cultural effects. The study also corroborates other evidence suggesting that people rely heavily on popular media for science information.

If newspapers' conclusions about sex differences are more like self-fulfilling prophesies than the result of accurate reporting, then the study, which was published in the journal Psychological Science (August 2004), has some worrying implications. How well are readers being served by science reporting? How accountable are lay people such as journalists when it comes to reporting science?

In answer to these questions, John Franklin, a Pulitzer-Prize-winning science writer explained, 'The thing is, most people who report science, a small minority of whom are science writers, don't have enough knowledge to make heads or tails of it. . . . Science writers leave out what they don't understand; editors take out what they don't understand and readers get what's left.'

These implications are even more grave when one considers Brescoll and LaFrance's other tested conclusion, namely, that press coverage which favors biological explanations for gender difference does in fact reinforce readers' stereotypes. This latter finding, that science stories in popular media impact peoples' attitudes, corroborate the findings of a 1997 National Health Council survey, which showed that more than half of Americans -- 58 percent -- claimed a medical or health news story led them to consider changing their behavior or taking action to improve their physical condition.

The study was conducted by coding articles in three ways: for the type of explanation provided for sex differences, for the degree to which the newspaper was conservative or liberal, and for the degree to which the newspaper articulated traditional sex role beliefs throughout its pages.
-- Elizabeth Dwoskin

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