Sex and sensationalism

Researchers accuse press of ‘licentious’ coverage of animal studies

“The media loves to sensationalize research” on same-sex sexual behavior among animals, according to an analysis published this week in the journal Nature.

A pair of biologists from Australia and the UK surveyed 48 newspaper, magazine, and online articles written about 11 scientific papers on the subject, and concluded that journalists have a tendency to produce tawdry coverage that is inaccurate and can feed negative stereotypes about homosexuality. According to their report:

Evolutionary biologists and neuroscientists are often interested in variations in animal sexual behaviour — and particularly relationships between animals of the same sex. How did such traits evolve, and what are their functions and biological bases? Although worthwhile, such research can fuel some of the most licentious scientific reporting in both the mainstream media and specialized publications — titillating prose that wildly misinterprets the research and its implications for human behaviour.

The most startling example of the harm that such coverage can do relates to a paper published in 2007, which hypothesized that homosexual activity among rams might be explained by an alteration of estrogen receptors in the brain. The research led to a lot of salacious (albeit clever) headlines, like “Brokeback Mutton.” But the worst offense was an article in The Sunday Times of London, which incorrectly asserted that the scientists behind it were trying to “cure” homosexuality in rams, and that their work “could pave the way for breeding out homosexuality in humans.” Consequently, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) launched a campaign to stop the research and the scientists were unfairly pilloried in the media. The newspaper eventually printed a correction, admitting that it had “misconstrued this experiment,” but as The New York Times reported, “The story of the gay sheep became a textbook example of the distortion and vituperation that can result when science meets the global news cycle.”

Other examples of sensational reporting presented in this week’s analysis are less convincing, although the paper only provided specific citations for a small fraction of the 48 articles that were reviewed.

In some cases, the researchers’ main concern was the headline. For instance, coverage of a 2007 paper that described how some female African bat bugs had evolved male genital structures in order to reduce the risk of “traumatic” insemination wasn’t that bad. It provoked poorly worded titles like “Bug sexual warfare drives gender bender” and “Bat bugs turn transsexual to avoid stabbing penises,” which irresponsibly ascribed human concepts pertaining to changes in sexual identity to the insects. The underlying articles, however, accurately described the research without much additional sensationalism. The same was basically true for coverage of a paper about male garter snakes that imitate females (the paper itself was responsible for introducing the term “she-male” in this case), and coverage of a paper about homosexual copulation between male flour beetles—two other examples provided in the analysis.

It doesn’t take a lot of lurid writing to leave a bad impression, though. The researchers suggested that the mere act of describing same-sex couplings between animals as “gay, lesbian, or transgender behavior” is enough to mislead.

“This is not innocuous,” they wrote. “These are terms that refer to human sexuality, which encompasses lifestyle choices, partner preferences and culture, among other factors.”

The researchers acknowledged that scientists play an important role in determining the quality of coverage. “Interviews in which scientists drew a link between their research findings and human behaviour consistently led to more-inflammatory media articles,” they wrote. This was apparent in coverage of a study into the genetic basis for sexual preferences among nematodes. While the paper did not extrapolate to humans, the scientist who wrote it did so readily in a press release.

But scientists can also ward off irresponsible inferences. According to analysis in Nature:

Perhaps the most striking examples of successful communication were the articles that came from research led by Lindsay Young, a wildlife biologist with Pacific Rim Conservation in Honolulu, on the breeding behaviour of the Laysan albatross. Young was regularly quoted as saying ‘Lesbian is a human term. The study is about albatross. The study is not about humans.’ When asked what her study said about human behaviour, Young’s only quoted reply has been ‘I don’t answer that question.’

As a result, most of the media coverage of this research used the term ‘same-sex couples’ when referring to albatross pairing, and only one used ‘lesbian.’ More significantly, most of the coverage spent more time discussing the behaviour of the birds than speculating on its relevance to humans or poking fun at the findings. In this case, actively denying inappropriate speculation seems to have helped to restrain the tone of the articles without diminishing public interest in the work.

Indeed, as the analysis suggests, journalists do not need to sensationalize research to garner attention. The authors concede that, “Of course, journalists should be allowed to use crafty wordsmanship to engage public interest.” But a good writer should be able to tell the difference between crafty and crude.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard. Tags: , , , ,