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How the media distorts psychology

March 10th, 2007

Dr Petra

Over at Jeremy Dean’s PsychologyBlog he’s covered Eight ways the media distorts psychology, which provides an interesting insight into some of the common ways the media misunderstands or misreports psychological research.

I’ll let you read the eight areas Jeremy’s identified. I’d add to the list the problem of journalists making use of ‘psychologists’ who are not really psychologists at all. We frequently have people described as psychologist who have either no qualification in the area or who did get a psych degree 20 years or more ago but haven’t updated any of their skills or knowledge since. Often journalists either aren’t aware that people may not be qualified or may believe that psychology isn’t that important so they can just use the job title at will. If in doubt a journalist should always make use of the British Psychological Society who can confirm if an ‘expert’ is in fact a psychologist. Not all psychologists are members of the BPS however, so if in doubt ask to see evidence of a relevant degree and continued professional development/qualifications before giving someone the title of ‘psychologist’.

Then there’s the ‘rent a quote’ psychologist (they know who they are) who’re always happy to say whatever the journalist wants in return for a plug for their book, website or therapeutic practice.

There’s also the problem of not understanding the many branches of psychology, the many approaches taken within the discipline, and that not everyone who is a psychologist sees psychology, science or people in the same way. Often journalists see a ‘psychologist’ as a magic job title that can be used to explain everything from brain damage to how we shop in the sales. There are many psychologists doing lots of different jobs and it’s important to pick the right one (not the rent-a-quote one) to back up a story. Sadly this rarely happens. Instead a journalist will pick any old psychologist and will quote whoever supports their story angle – whether it’s right or not.

We also see another problem with media reporting of psychology where journalists don’t understand that a psychologist is not automatically a counsellor or therapist. You have psychologists who train in clinical or counselling psychology and who’ll specialise in a particular area – teenagers, children, families, couples, older people. You have psychologists who research or teach in a particular area such as social, sport and exercise, evolutionary, developmental or cognitive psychology. You have psychologists who do mostly academic research focusing on student participants and psychologists who work in community settings as either practitioners, advocates or researchers. Sadly journalists often do not appreciate there are different ways to ‘do’ psychology and may wrongly believe a psychologist who is a counsellor is more qualified than a psychologist who works in teaching, research or other practice.

Finally I’d add to Jeremy’s list the problem of overusing psychologists in the media. If you look at magazine or newspaper features from 20 years ago it was rare to see an expert mentioned at all. Now you can’t move in media coverage without the obligatory psychologist quoted. This means that other areas of social research and understanding – such as sociology, anthropology, cultural studies, history and geography – are left out, even though they can also explain human behaviour.

Most of the problems outlined in Jeremy’s blog and above are not down to individual journalists but down to editors who do not understand psychology, certainly don’t understand the social sciences and frequently misuse psychologists to stack up stories that aren’t accurate or ethical.

We’ve a number of problems around how psychology is used in the media currently – from the recent scandals of Big Brother to the overuse of rent-a-quote and non-qualified ‘psychologists’. We won’t overcome the problem by just complaining about the media. We need to be proactive in explaining psychology and what psychologists do to editors and journalists. We need to highlight poor practice of psychologists in the media – and draw attention to those claiming false qualifications in the area. And we need the British Psychological Society to act more assertively where bad practice is exposed to ensure the public can trust when they see a psychologist on television or in a newspaper or magazine, that this person truly is an expert and does know what they’re talking about.

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