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Sex evidence for journalists

February 20th, 2006

Dr Petra

In the past few weeks I’ve had numerous calls from journalists working on sex stories. Most of these are underpinned by current news, science reports, or other popular culture – new movies and TV series.

In each of these cases I’ve worked to help them stack up their stories using an evidence base – sometimes successfully, sometimes not. The conversations we’ve had have made me rethink how I try and explain evidence – because I don’t always seem to get it right.

On several occasions there’s been little I can do to help with features since the approach they’re taking just doesn’t lend itself to evidence – if you’re asked to diagnose someone’s sexual behaviour based on their favourite bedtime drink, or their bra cup-size there’s not a lot you can offer aside from guesswork.

Alternatively their story contradicts evidence. Usually when this happens I try and check the angle their coming from, then explain where or why the approach their taking contradicts evidence, and I provide some counter claims or alternative theories. However since editors usually set story agendas and journalists are unable to deviate from it this becomes difficult. One journalist told me they were writing about how the “clitoris is a miniature penis”, but when I pointed out the biologically correct idea is that the penis is an overgrown clitoris they said ‘my editor won’t believe that!’ So even where I can share evidence I know frequently journalists already anticipate not being able to use it.

So I’ve been wondering about what approach to use. Do I identify early on that the story idea is contradicting existing theories and simply refuse to help with the story? Or do I explain why the story is problematic and hope journalists can try and use some of the ideas – on the understanding they probably wont?

Journalists I’ve asked are mixed. Those who’re busy and have immovable editors are more likely to want me to refuse participation early on – it saves them time. Others have said they like to know what’s going on since it could be useful for future stories – even if they won’t get away with it this time. Some have said they like to know the science, but I have to understand that since it’s all about sales and advertising anything that comes close to controversial (i.e. most sex science, particularly the critical stuff) won’t be included.

Recently I’ve also been alerted to something about my practice that needs some attention. I’ve discovered that some journalists, when faced with my vigorous critique of a study or story are so convinced they believe the research they’d picked (or been told to write about) is ‘wrong’ and therefore discard it. I clearly need to find ways to explain science enthusiastically without giving the impression that a poor study shouldn’t be talked about.

This is a real problem for sex scientists because we aren’t asking journalists to throw the baby out with the bathwater; we want them to critique research – particularly high profile bad sex science that currently misleads and distresses the public.

And it’s not difficult to do, all you have to ask is:
Who did this research?
Who paid for it?
Could there be any conflict of interest here (e.g. caused by the funding body or researcher agenda?)
Where was the research completed?
Who took part in the study?
Were there any ethical implications about it?
How does this research compare to other scientific studies/theories?
Do this research represent all people globally, or are there cultural or historical variations?
How does the wider scientific community view this research?
Is it supported by independent evidence anywhere else?

Experts are happy to do this for you (and they apply to all research, not just sex studies). We’re usually aware of study flaws; particularly if you’re referring us to research that has had a lot of press coverage. We want to help you understand flaws in a particular study so you can unpack it for your audience. If a study is unethical, non-scientific or could give bad advice about social or health care you can explain this to your audience and reassure them not to worry.

That’s better than taking a study that’s incorrect or misleading and reporting it as fact so your audience gets concerned about their physical or emotional well-being and perhaps wastes healthcare resources.

So if you’re a journalist and want to know how to use evidence more effectively:
- Talk to an academic, researcher, therapist or educator working on sex before you set a story angle.
- Find out from the experts what’s new in sex, and what’s contested.
- Appreciate that even though a research project has media attention it may not be supported by the wider scientific community
- Learn how to unpick evidence so you can critique research for your readers (or ask an expert to help you with this).
- Avoid seeing stories as ‘black and white’ or with just two sides to them – most research (including sex research) is far more complex.

And finally, understand that whilst the majority of sex research you hear about comes from press releases or other media coverage, this is just the tip of a very large research iceberg. Reporting a study from a press release without reading the original paper means your story will never be accurate – that’s what experts are there for, to help translate research papers for your audience. More importantly journalists I’ve spoken to have been surprised to learn when it comes to sex research just how much data there is out there – and that the stories they see in the press are not representative of sex research, nor the sum total of our discipline. Which means there are stacks more story opportunities out there for you every week – you just need to ask sex experts to help you find and understand them.

And those who’re good at their jobs will be willing to do just that.

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