Science Reporting Skews Sex Differences

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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Science Reporting Skews Sex Differences

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