How to Read and Respond to Media Reports on Social Science

Andrew Gottlieb of The Psychology Lounge recently posted a useful article about the way the media misrepresents social science research. Although Gottlieb is a clinical psychologist, his analysis has relevance for applied sociology. I include his tips on how to identify the typical ways journalists misuse scientific data. I then discuss some of my own tips for how to manage media interviews in order to avoid these common media traps.

How to Read and Respond to Media Reports on Social Science

Misrepresentations of Social Science

Gottlieb has analysed Gary Schwitzer’s post on How Reporters Screw up Health and Medical Reporting. He identifies three journalist practices that misrepresent social science:

  1. Many news stories fail to mention that the ‘relative risk reduction’ or ‘benefits’ from drugs or treatments depend upon the sample size and absolute data used in clinical trials and experiments
  2. The media may not bother detailing the limitations of observational studies, such as the fact that such studies cannot establish cause and effect relationships
  3. Journalists may not discuss the difference between studies based on a representative sample, versus studies which use populations that were at higher risk of disease and elected for screening tests.

Gottlieb notes that in many cases, the aspects of research which get quoted in a media article come down to what makes a better headline. Scientific headlines that accurately describe research findings are  typically long and the concepts and phrases used are awkward for a lay audience to understand. The media prefer short, snappy titles and easily digestible descriptions of research. Gottlieb provides a couple of headlines that speak to the same study:

  • Off-putting but scientifically accurate title: Scientists Find a Relatively Weak Association between Intelligence Levels and Coffee Consumption
  • Title preferred by media: Drinking Coffee Makes You Smarter

The first title is correct but is unlikely to gain media interest. The second title is false but it is more memorable. Most members of the media and the public are not scientists, so we need to think about how to convey our research in interesting but straight-forward ways. So what can we do as social scientists to ensure that our research and activities are accurately reported on by the media? I would argue that we need to get smarter in the way we use language.

Media Advice and Training

I once went to a media training session during one of The Australian Sociological Association conferences. The media expert (a non-sociologist) told us to use ‘sexy titles‘ and to learn how to speak in short, snappy sentences. When I first started doing media interviews, I was still a postgraduate student and the thought of speaking to journalists was über scary. The best advice I was given was by my supervisor. He told me to:

  • Decide on one thing I wanted to say (a ‘sound bite’) and then to say it in as many different ways possible
  • Think about the questions I might be asked in advance so that I could plan how I might answer them
  • Work out the main thing I did NOT want to be quoted as saying, and to then come up with strategies for answering such a question in a way that would not get me misquoted. The best thing to do is to continue saying your sound bite.

This advice has come in very handy. I have been put in a few situations where journalists have wanted to use my research to support their particular point of view which completely contradicted my research and ethics. For example, one of my journal articles received a bit of media – I had written about a sample of young Australians of migrant background who argue that Australia has no distinctive culture. Some journalists wanted me to say that multiculturalism wasn’t working because these women were not (in their eyes) well-integrated into Australian culture. This was not true. My article also talked about how the women thought that Australian multiculturalism was one unique aspect of Australian national culture. Strangely enough, I was also contacted by one journalist who wanted me to say that Australia has no culture and perhaps we needed a national costume to help promote a clear Australian identity. In these two examples, the journalists did not use the interviews I participated in because I refused to say what they wanted me to say. Obviously, most other journalists have greater integrity and they’re not going to badger you to say something you don’t want to say. They will still want you to fit in with the story they’ve set out to tell, but if you express yourself in a way that is jargon-free, they are more likely to use the material you provide. Other things to consider:

  • work out your argument in one short, sharp sentence and use this as your sound bite
  • avoid going into sub-arguments – set out to tell only one story, so that your research will be communicated clearly
  • provide an anecdote – for example discuss one participant’s story to illustrate your argument
  • use memorable quotes or phrases, as well as interesting and colourful language, or a funny a poignant line
  • mention the boundaries or limitations of your methods and sample in a brief but clear way
  • stick to one line on the who, what, when, how and why of your argument (again, work out one clear sentence for each to ensure your research will not be misappropriated)
  • avoid giving too much confusing detail about the ins and outs of your research
  • if you’re giving an interview on camera, make sure you look straight at the camera or at your interviewer (many people tend to look off to the side or upwards when they’re thinking, but journalists don’t like the way this looks on camera)
  • if your work is misused or misappropriated, you might consider writing to the editor or publisher, or alternatively posting a comment online to clarify your position.

If you have any other tips for managing or responding to media representations of applied social science for your fellow S@Wsters, please email your suggestions. I can compile your ‘lessons learned’ and distribute it around our network.

Image Credit: Aramil Liadon (2010) Reporters. Flickr. Adapted by Sociology at Work.