Skip to content

Are we helped or harmed when psychologists and the media team up?

May 7th, 2007

Dr Petra

Recently I blogged about the pilot scheme between the British Psychological Society and Top Sante magazine where the BPS had helped the magazine create a free 28 page supplement called ‘Happy New You’. The supplement was supposed to reflect collaboration between the media and the BPS and contain contributions from the ‘best experts’. The BPS were keen to show how they were going to shape editorial and liase with the media.

I had some reservations around why the BPS were paying to put a supplement in a magazine, how much editorial control they had, and why they were collaborating with a magazine rather than tackling editors across a wider range of publications to produce more cutting-edge reporting rather than the usual poor range of unqualified ‘experts’ that grace the pages of many of our glossies.

However, the British Psychological Society’s women’s section have raised some even more worrying issues about the BPS/Top Sante collaboration that suggest rather than the best experts being used or the BPS having any opportunity to shape editorial in fact the usual kind of worst stereotyping and poor copy appeared in the collaborative issue.

In a letter in the latest issue of The Psychologist (Vol.20, No.5, May 2007, p.278) the Women’s Section (POWS) support the idea of psychology’s engagement with the public and for the development, promotion and application of psychology within wider society. However POWS do not feel that ‘reinforcing contemporary constructions of gender’ is the best way to go about achieving these aims and raise concerns about the links between the BPS and Top Sante.

The letter states, “The BPS insists that psychology is not a political discipline and that as a governing body it intends to retain objectivity, neutrality and impartiality. However, we are concerned that our name has been attached to sources of highly suspect cultural messages that reinforce dominant notions of feminine identity, such as innate emotionality and concern with weight and appearance”.

The letter continues to show how the BPS/Top Sante proposed to help women overcome their problems and life stress with solutions including ‘retail therapy’, ‘self-pampering’ or seeking ‘professional help’. Certainly the first two have no foundation in contemporary or evidence based psychological approaches, and all three are problematic when matched with the idea that women’s health in general is seen as pathological – something to be cured by a quick trip to the shops.

But it gets worse. POWS analysis of the BPS/Top Sante magazine suggests that women’s past accomplishments might include ‘snogging the sexiest guy at university’ which they rightly point out are both elitist and heterosexual (you can add boring, samey and aspirational to that list if you want). They also note the images within the ‘Happy New You’ supplement are all exclusively of white and able bodied people – which for a publication from a society that is supposed to reflect diversity in society isn’t exactly hitting the mark.

Now you could argue from a media perspective that Top Sante are always going to maintain heterosexual, elitist and able bodied norms as they’re an aspirational publication whose editors and advertisers are not interested in reaching minority groups. But given this was supposed to be a collaboration between psychologists and the media where psychologists were supposed to have editorial control it’s depressing that all that seemed to happen was the BPS rolled over and let Top Sante magazine lead with their usual diet of women’s lives being a source of stress, overflowing emotions and anxieties that could be cured by either a shopping spree or required professional psychological help.

Of course we can’t expect the media to change, but if we’re paying them to reproduce new ideas in psychology (as was the case in the BPS/Top Sante collaboration) it’s a real failure on the part of the BPS if they can’t manage to show at least some cutting edge ideas. It doesn’t bode well for future media collaborations if all we’re seen to do is maintain, not question, the status quo – particularly in the area of media where traditionally the misuse of psychologists and psychology has been to prop up inequalities and not challenge what’s going on in society.

POWS rightly continue in their letter that psychology should be looking for new ways to represent the human experience and conclude, “if one of the aims of science is to encourage independent and critical thinking, then we do not think that this aim is being achieved in the Top Sante publication”.

The BPS didn’t respond officially to the letter although they did publish it. Top Sante said nothing – well, they wouldn’t as they’ve got pretty much all they wanted from the BPS and I doubt they’d welcome any of the suggestions POWS raised.

I can imagine from a media studies perspective or from a general media viewpoint the POWS criticisms may seem naïve or out of touch – after all the media doesn’t want to offer alternative views – if they did they’d already be doing it. However it’s important we don’t dismiss POWS concerns as they’re showing very clearly that the media do choose to represent issues of health, gender and psychological well-being in specific (and often inaccurate ways). And that sadly it seems the BPS are only too happy to go along with this – which to my mind is neither serving science or society.

Comments are closed.