After the story first appeared, it was quickly picked up by other publications in Europe and other countries around the world. That’s when friends and colleagues started getting in touch with Dr. Sell. As he saw the inaccurate stories appearing far and wide, he sent a letter to the Times, and contacted other publications to get them to correct their stories. (You can read the BBC’s corrected story here.)

From his letter to the Times:

Journalistic ethics requires, at a minimum, that you remove from this article all references to me, and to the research I and my collaborators have conducted. This article consists almost entirely of empirical claims and quotes about blonde women that Mr. Harlow fabricated, and then attributed to me. Please take the article offline immediately.

Psychology Today, Stinky Journalism, and a contributor to True/Slant have weighed in on the questionable article. Dr. Sell also decided to publish a note on his Web site to try and get the word out:

News Flash! Press gets the data fantastically wrong

The Sunday Times of London recently published a piece claiming that I found a link between blonde hair in women and anger, entitlement and “warlike” behavior. No such research was done, and my colleagues and I believe the claims of the article are false. As can be seen by a search in my original publication (here) the words “blonde” or even “hair” never appear. Nevertheless, the story spread rapidly throughout the blogosphere and the mainstream news…

Given the widespread re-reporting of the erroneous findings related to blondes, Dr. Sell is left to conclude that “there is a lot of interest in blondes in Europe.”

That’s especially true when it comes to the Sunday Times. Back in 2006, it was one of several news outlets fooled by a hoax claiming a WHO study found blondes were on the path to extinction. Here’s the correction that was eventually appended to the story (“Cavegirls were first blondes to have fun”):

The World Health Organisation has asked us to remove an earlier erroneous reference suggesting it had conducted a study which forecast natural blonds were likely to be extinct within 200 years. The WHO issued a formal denial of such a study in 2002.

The paper also recently published an article headlined, “Recession chic: why blondes are having more fun,” and an earlier one, “You silly boys: blondes make men act dumb”.

As of this writing, the paper has not issued a correction. In a statement issued to CJR, the Times said: “There is a difference of opinion between the reporter and the complainant
about their conversation, which has not yet been resolved.” The paper has also rebuffed Dr. Sell’s attempts to place a comment on the story, though the top-rated comment on the piece states that “this article is made up” and provides links to support the assertion.

In response to his letter objecting to the piece, the article’s author and one of his editors asked Dr. Sell to provide evidence that his research has nothing to do with blondes. Yes, the paper is asking the very man whose research it based the article on to defend his work. As if he misunderstood his own data. I guess they subscribe to the notion that the best defense is a good offense.

“How do you prove that you didn’t say something?” Dr. Sell said, noting the other researcher quoted in the article, Catherine Salmon, also expressed dismay with the reporting and her quotes. (They saw each other at a recent conference.)

“I e-mailed the editor to ask what he needed from me, and he said I need to provide evidence to my side of the story,” Dr. Sell said. “… I’m the source and I’m telling you it’s not true. What more evidence do you want?”

Like, totally.

Correction of the Week

Craig Silverman is the editor of RegretTheError.com and the author of Regret The Error: How Media Mistakes Pollute the Press and Imperil Free Speech. He is also the editorial director of OpenFile.ca and a columnist for the Toronto Star.