The media, statistics and shock headlines

Oh dear it has been nearly a month since I last posted, sadly the combination of marking, tutorial preparation and my day job in clinical practice got the better of my good intentions! However I will be reducing my clinical hours from the beginning of March so intend to catch up on writing then.

I did have a blog post brewing, inspired by a piece in the Moldovan media, but (much like the early days of my PhD) I kept finding myself wandering down lots of intellectual side roads with it and losing focus somewhat. However last weekend I came across some media reports, again in Moldovan online media, which whilst interesting in their own right also raised more general questions for me about the reporting of statistics and research findings in the media. One of the academic blogs I like to read is by Dr Petra Boynton who is meticulous in detailing the shortcomings of media reporting of research findings, and in particular the sloppy way in which research is evaluated beforehand. One of the issues she frequently encourages of journalists is to ask questions about the research – rather than accepting it at face value, question the methods and the findings. Can the conclusions be justified given the methods, what (if any) are the shortcomings of the research, how have the figures quoted been reached?

Last week I noticed a few articles on some Moldovan media sites reporting that “the majority of young people in Moldova have prostituted themselves at least once” (Unimedia). The reports (also repeated here by ProTV) use the words “shocking” and “scandalous” and at first glance seem to imply that 70% of Moldovan women have prostituted themselves. The source for this figure is a quote from French media from the Scelles Foundation, a coalition of NGOs in France working in the area of sex trafficking and exploitation. Their president was reported here as saying “In Moldova for example, an extremely poor country, 70% of women between 15-25 have prostituted themselves at least once”. However, the ProTV article above states that the research being cited was actually saying that 70% of Moldovan prostitutes are between the ages of 15-25, which is considerably different. I am encouraged that, unlike much of the media according to Dr Petra Boynton’s blog or French media going by the Europe1 article quoted above, the Moldovan media is showing at least at a basic level of understanding of the need to get the facts right behind the statistics and not twist them (there were a number of times during my PhD when I was doing my media review when I despaired of what I was reading, so this was encouraging to see). There is understandable outrage at the misquoting of the statistics (and perhaps misquoting of the Scelles Foundation president?) to imply something very negative about Moldovan women, something which is also discussed in this Vox Publika article, albeit with a rather stereotypical and idealistic alternative presentation of Moldovan women. That article also points out what I had found when I had a poke round the Scelles Foundation site, which is that the original report/research on which the 70% figure is supposedly based is nowhere to be found. It does not say where or when or who was interviewed/surveyed to come up with these figures, or what methods were used, so there is no way at all of verifying or questioning them.

What I think this shows is that, as well as the responsibility of the media to report research responsibility and accurately, it is important for those of us wishing to disseminate our research to ensure that it is accessible, and not open to blatant misinterpretation.

2 responses to “The media, statistics and shock headlines

  1. Darn! Darn! Darn! after spending several hours dinning into nascent researchers that when you report a percentage you should always say of what, I have just realised I have a graph without that very pertinent detail in my latest chapter.

  2. Hey, at least you realised before you submitted it – glad to be of assistance! 😀

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