Television news loves nothing more than a quick stop-‘em-in-their-tracks report on the findings of some newly published — often health-related — research study. In the past month, according to Nexis, the phrase “a new study shows,” “new research suggests” (or some variation thereof) has popped up in several hundred TV news transcripts.
And, really, what’s not to like? These reports can be eye-and-ear-catching (or can be made to be, with the right accompanying audio-visual touches), can ease segment segues (“Speaking of weather masses, Steve, a new study shows that dogs are good for overweight people”) and can promote feel-good inter-host banter (“You’re a dog lover, aren’t you, Steve?”).
Trouble is, as any frequent morning news show viewer can tell you, when reporting on what today’s “new study shows,” reporters routinely fail to provide viewers with much (or sometimes any) detail or context — Who did the research/study? Who funded it? How large was the sample size? How does it compare to similar studies in the field? — of the sort that allows viewers to decide how much credence to lend the research or where to look for additional information.
This morning, for example, none of these questions were answered for viewers of CBS’s “The Early Show” in its report on “new research” about how men and women process jokes. Here is the entirety of Hannah Storm’s report:”
“What’s so funny? New research says it depends on who you are. Some think ‘The Three Stooges.’ [Cue footage of Mo, Larry and Curly]. Men apparently like slapstick comedy a lot more than women in this study. Women prefer a good joke instead.”
On ABC, “Good Morning America“‘s Robin Roberts provided viewers with a bit more information and a hint of context — at least, enough so that an interested viewer could turn to Google and report out the rest of the story on his own: “Say, have you heard the one about women and laughter?” Roberts quipped. “Turns out that women appreciate the punch line of a joke more than men. A very small study at Stanford found the reward center of women’s brains really lit up when they found a joke funny. One female comedian said it is because women just need to laugh more than men. [Charles Gibson] is searching for a punch line. Searching.” (Emphasis ours.)
On “Fox and Friends,” the very small study fueled a faux-feisty discussion among the three co-hosts, two male and one female, during which one of the few details provided was botched. Male host one: “So Stanford came up with this thing, they did some MRIs on five different men and five different women [it was 10 men and 10 women] … the results are that women seem to appreciate a good joke better.” Male host two: ” This is such an anti-man study.” Female host: “Men think they’re so funny … ” Male host two: “Bottom line, men stink. Why don’t we just start every show like that?”
And, lest you think it’s just “new research” about jokes that receives the quick and light treatment, witness how the morning news shows handled a recent study about something that’s hardly a laughing matter — heart disease.
On NBC last Friday, Ann Curry of “The Today Show” reduced the study to three sentences — none of which answered any of the detail-and-context-related questions above — and then threw it to Matt and Katie “out on the Plaza” where Katie’s being crowned “an honorary Miss National Teenager” got about equal air time. “Good Morning America” treated the study similarly that day, mentioning it in passing and offering no identifying details or context. Those watching CNN’s “American Morning” were told that the study said that “the hip-to-waist ratio is a better predictor of heart attack risk than height and weight,” that the study was published in The Lancet, a British medical journal — and then it was on to the banter, for which, it would seem, there is endless air-time available:
Soledad O’Brien: “Men out there, pay attention if you have a pot belly. And women, too, I guess we should say. Pete, we’re not talking about you at all. Don’t worry.”
Kelly Wallace: “[Pete]’s very trim. It’s a lot of muscle mass there. What does Jacqui think about all of this?”
Jacqui Jeras: “Oh, good morning. I just keep thinking of the guys with the really big pot bellies and really skinny on the bottom where their pants just never fit. Anyway, not a good visual to wake you up with this morning …”
No, Jacqui, not a good visual at all.