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When is a ‘study’ not a ‘study’? The Guardian speaks out against the misuse of sex statistics in its own paper

December 8th, 2008

Dr Petra

Often when I read press coverage of prostitution or other sex-related topics I nearly fall off my chair or choke on my coffee. That’s normally because such coverage is dreadful and inevitably finds its way into something of a rant on this blog.

Today I had a similar falling-off-chair-while-choking-on-coffee response to The Guardian who have publicly accepted that some ‘studies’ referred to in their pages are based on either misleading data or unreliable research.

The piece by the reader’s editor Siobhain Butterworth is part of the Open Door Series and tackles the recent inclusion of misleading statistics about prostitution in a Guardian interview with Home Secretary Jacqui Smith. You can read the piece and reader responses here.

It is always heartening to see a paper apply proper standards of journalism, although it’s fair to say that this is just one Comment Is Free piece and really we ought to be requiring all papers (including The Guardian) to check the research they use to stack up their stories. Journalists and editors should be prepared to disclose their sources, and also ensure the sources they are using are accurate.

The Guardian is by no means the only paper who makes fast and loose with ‘research’, but as a paper that sets itself up to be read by an educated readership (and includes a Bad Science column that exposes duff research) we may hope for higher standards from them.

What is different about The Guardian is their affection for all stories sexual – particularly about prostitution. While they have taken steps to include some balanced reports these appear to be in the minority and most coverage is sensational and not based on accurate research.

Moreover because of its attention to this area The Guardian has been contacted on numerous occasions by professionals working in the area of sexual health and research pointing out the problems with their reporting. So there is really no excuse for including misleading data or relying on research or ‘studies’ that may not be all that robust.

Journalists from the paper are also informed in advance when their stories based on dodgy studies are on the wrong track and not based on accurate information, but still these stories are included. Three weeks ago I pointed out to a Guardian writer how she was basing a story on a piece of PR research and not a kosher study. Even with that knowledge the story was run as a ‘factual’ piece anyway.

Sometimes it’s not a case of journalists from The Guardian (or any other paper) not listening to feedback, but it is a case of them not asking critical questions about data they’ve been sent. For example, last week The Guardian reported an online survey from a teen magazine saying a quarter of their readers had been ‘forced to engage in sex or engage in sexual activity’ but if the journalist writing this piece had read December’s issue of the magazine (currently on sale) they would have seen results from another online survey of readers stating 87% of 14 year olds had never had sex. Comparing these two sets of data does not mean that teenage girls cannot be abused sexually, but there is a question to be asked when one survey of readers claims very little sexual activity, whereas another one on the same set of readers suggests a high level of abuse.

If The Guardian wants to clean up its reporting of studies and statistics it really needs to ensure questions are asked about data. For example in the case of the teenage girls research the journalist could have covered the story but should have asked why were two sets of data from magazines published in December and January showing such different outcomes and of the 1/4 teenage girls reporting abuse for a breakdown in figures to establish what types of abuse were being reported – and what distress this caused. After all if you don’t check that you’ll include the 14 year old who was raped alongside a 14 year old who was groped, didn’t like it, dumped her loser boyfriend on the spot and felt empowered by doing so. This wouldn’t mean the story had to change, although it might make for a less dramatic headline. However, it would make for a more interesting piece overall as it would allow for a discussion about the wide range of sexually coercive behaviours teen girls are experiencing and hopefully give better pointers on how we may all work to address this worrying problem.

We know why this happens. Journalists are often on a short deadline and have to fit to a particular story angle set out by the editor. They may lack the skills in searching for accurate research data or fail to understand reports if they do find them. Many academic reports are not always immediately accessible to a journalist (either in geographical location or the language of research), whereas lots of reports by pressure groups or those with a particular angle to push are easily found through a quick google rummage. As it’s pretty much mandatory for an editor to demand statistics to stack up a story but don’t seem to care where said statistics come from there is no incentive to check for more accurate data (or even an understanding by some journalists that heirarchies of data exist).

None of these are real reasons for not using kosher research, but they explain what is currently happening in the media. What is depressing is that many academics are trying to share accurate and reliable research but this is frequently ignored by journalists who’re either too stressed to listen, not experienced enough to change their story angle, or coming from a particular political angle so they refuse to consider any evidence that does not fit their agenda.

So while I’m glad Ms Butterworth has spoken out against poor reportage within her paper, The Guardian needs to do more than one piece about this. They need to tackle poor journalism across the paper and ensure when they are given feedback by professionals working in particular areas – either before a piece goes to press or afterwards – that this information is made use of. There is little point in academics producing research and being accessible to the media if journalists decide they will ignore feedback that makes their life a bit more difficult or challenges a more salacious story angle.

Myself and colleagues will continue to offer information to The Guardian and other papers on prostitution or related topics. And hopefully all of us will hold the paper to its promise and keep complaining and making public poor reportage.

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