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When I can’t (or won’t) do my hormone homework

April 17th, 2006

Dr Petra

Whenever a journalist gets in touch with a colleague or myself about a story, they do so because we’ll help make it more believable. For many journalists, that simply means giving a quote that fits with the story brief. For most scientists, academics or researchers they want to share information and evidence.

Tensions inevitably arise when the expert tells the journalist something they don’t want to hear, or doesn’t fit within their brief. When this happens the journalist will use a number of techniques to either try and change the expert’s focus or get them to support an angle that’s wrong. Usually it involves trying to make you sound (or feel) boring, out of touch, or unskilled at science communication.

Techniques myself and colleagues have experienced from journalists include:
“Look, I’m not writing a dissertation here!”
“It doesn’t have to be 100% right”
“It’s just a fun/feelgood piece”
“It’s not a biology essay”
”Our readers don’t want anything too complex”
“Can’t you lighten up a bit?”
“You’d be more believable if you weren’t so serious”

And these sorts of responses happen a surprising amount when you’re talking about sex, particularly the science of sex.

Recently I was talking to a journalist who was writing a piece about hormones and sex. They told me how their brief (from their editor) was to describe ‘every single one of all the different sex hormones released inside our brain’ that ‘come out when you meet someone’ and how to ‘keep those hormones alive by eating special foods or supplements’.

I pointed out that perhaps they needed some expert advice about hormones and their production, and their relationship with foods or other supplements. I recommended they talked to an endocrinologist (who specialises in hormones) and a nutritional expert. Their response was ‘yes but if the magazine wants a feel good factor I have to find someone who’ll support that’.

It seemed they’d already tried both a biologist and nutritionist who’d given them short shrift. For this reason they were unwilling to talk to an endocrinologist as I’d suggested, and were on a desperate search for any old ‘sexpert’ who’d agree with their ‘hormones-in-your-head-enhanced-by-food’ story. I was no use as I added to the confusion by suggesting that cultural and social factors around sex may also play a part.

Although a lot of guff is spouted by people who don’t know their hormones from their handbags it isn’t always that journalists don’t know whom they can talk to. It’s that they have to decide to write what their editors want because otherwise they won’t get paid. So even when myself and colleagues carefully signpost journalists to the best people in nutrition, medicine, healthcare and endocrinology, when it comes to sex features they feel they can (or must) ignore these experts because they might tell them either something they don’t understand, or more often, something that doesn’t fit their story angle and their editor’s inaccurate view of hormones, sex, and human behaviour.

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