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“This Morning” Sex Survey 2006: a chance to increase viewing figures, or an example of really unethical journalism? You decide

November 13th, 2006

Dr Petra

Last year the UK was rocked by findings that claimed an epidemic of men faking orgasm. Of course, there wasn’t really an epidemic of men faking orgasm at all; it was TV show ‘This Morning’ trying to boost its viewing figures with a sex survey whose data ran counter to all other existing research.

Predictably I blogged about the inaccurate study and pointed out some of the errors with the survey. Specifically these included its disregard for existing evidence, manipulating data for a good headline, not representing the public and having a conflict of interest.

Fat lot of good it did me because today ‘This Morning’ is back with yet another ‘sex survey’. Again it’s being used to launch their ‘sex week’ that is a thinly disguised attempt to boost viewing figures. As with last year my criticisms remain. If you were going to have a week of sex broadcasting surely you’d want to use cutting-edge evidence and a highly qualified and respected expert? It would certainly happen if the show were running cancer, stroke or heart disease week. Not so, though, if the topic is sex.

So what did their ‘survey’ reveal this time around? Well, here’s an excerpt from their website ‘explaining’ the data:
“- An exclusive poll for This Morning revealed that out of 1699 people, one in five (21%) lost their virginity before the age of 16.
- The YouGov survey revealed that women were the most likely offenders. 33% of women, aged between 16-34 years old, confessed to losing their virginity before their 16th birthday, compared to 17% of 16-34 year old men.
- The survey also showed that younger generations of women are sexually active earlier. Nearly half of women (47%) over the age of 35 waited until they were over 18 to lose their virginity, compared to 26% of 18-34 year olds”.

As with last year ‘This Morning’ obviously hadn’t let existing data get in the way of their story angle. Strange, since most other sex research doesn’t indicate that there’s a dramatic change in behaviour, and certainly no reputable sex research would run with phrases such as ‘women were the most likely offenders’ when it comes to sexual behaviour. Also no reputable sex research would leave out crucial information such as how many men or women took part, the age range of participants or details like their sexuality or relationship status

What’s shocking about this case isn’t just the crummy ‘survey’ thrown together for the This Morning programme. It’s the fact that the media are already jumping all over it. By 8am today I’d already had three calls from journalists wanting to cover this ‘shocking new trend’ – all of who were under the impression that this was a government backed study (because the poll was completed by company YouGov). For the record, this is NOT a government-backed study.

However, just this weekend the government launched a major media campaign tackling sexual health for young people – the very group This Morning are claiming to be discussing in their survey and today’s show. In fact representatives from the programme were at the press launch. Has that stopped them running a survey that runs counter to the new UK sexual health campaign? No. Do their findings get in the way of the new campaign and mislead journalists along the way? Seemingly, yes.

The ethics of launching a promotional week in the midst of a health campaign are dodgy to say the least – particularly when you’re claiming something that runs counter to other good sexual health advice. One can question what’s the point in having an expert host your programme if they can’t spot this?

This also begs the question ‘why run a survey?’ Because if you’re running a sex survey on a yearly basis you would have thought the purpose would be to a. ask the same questions as last year and b. indicate if any changes have happened. Not the case with This Morning who have apparently written an entirely different sex survey from last year – something that further indicates a lack of understanding of the method and unethical working practices.

What’s most interesting (or depressing) is the selective way journalists are responding to this story. Recently there’s been quality data first from the Office of National Statistics and latterly a global study published less than a fortnight ago in The Lancet that indicates sexual behaviour is not actually how the media represents it. The press reacted to the ONS study as our deficit in sexual behaviour and the Lancet study, whilst covered, has not apparently sunk into the brains of journalists who’re now happily disregarding it in favour of the This Morning ‘data’. In fact of the journalists I’ve spoken to so far today they all knew about the This Morning survey, but none had heard about The Lancet special issue on sexual/reproductive health. And these are the people trusted to convey sex information to the public.

My attempts so far to persuade journalists if they run with the This Morning survey they’re offering free advertising for a television show and will be presenting misleading data to the public hasn’t had much impact. They’re happy for me to offer the ‘alternative view’ but still seem to want to promote these dodgy data. Again, we have to ask ourselves (and I’ve also asked the journalists concerned) would this happen if the story was about cancer, heart disease or similar?

Over the rest of the week we can expect to see more from This Morning, who no doubt will have plenty more useless information to share with us. However, since we know staff from the programme have now been told their surveys and experts are dodgy, let’s see what happens next year. Because it’s one thing promoting nonsense studies when you perhaps don’t know any better, it’s another thing to continue to do it when you’ve been told it’s unethical. Watch this space.

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