Does Freedom Of The Press In The UK Include Just Making Things Up?

from the ah,-but-we-keep-being-told-we-need-the-press dept

Personally, I’ve had pretty good experiences in dealing with the UK press, who have interviewed me on a few different occasions. I haven’t found the experience to be particularly different than talking with the American press (or, frankly, the press from a number of other countries). I was aware that the UK press has, in general, more of a reputation for sensationalism, but in general I hadn’t seen a huge problem. However, Jake points us to a couple of blog posts from a psychology professor discussing how one of the more respected UK publications apparently made up a story, claiming an American professor’s research said something that it didn’t come close to saying, and then didn’t seem particularly interested in correcting it:

The article reported that “Researchers claim that blondes are more likely to display a “warlike” streak because they attract more attention than other women and are used to getting their own way — the so-called “princess effect.”” The Times article quotes the evolutionary psychologist at the University of California — Santa Barbara, Aaron Sell, and his findings are purportedly published in his article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, written with the two Deans of Modern Evolutionary Psychology, Leda Cosmides and John Tooby.

As it turns out, however, none of this is true, as Sell explains in his angry letter to the Times. He and his coauthors do not mention blondes at all in their paper and they don’t even have hair color in their data. The supplementary analyses that Sell performed after the publication of the paper, as a personal favor to the Times reporter, show the exact opposite of what the Times article claims. After he presumably listened to Sell explain all of this on the phone, the Times reporter nonetheless made up the whole thing, and attributed it to Sell.

Reading through the actual letter from Sell is really quite damning as he details one by one all of the false statements in the Times’ article. Here’s just a snippet (it goes on and on):

Mr. Harlow called to ask me about blonde women in particular. He said he was writing an article about blondes, and that he knew of other research showing that blondes feel more entitled. _I told him that my research did not look at blondes at all._ At his request, and as a courtesy to him, I reanalyzed our unpublished data to see if there was any relationship between being blonde and any variable I measured. There was not, and I told him so. (Although we had not taken hair color in the studies, being uninterested in it, I was able to recode the data retroactively based on photographs.)

Specifically, I told him, based on our data:

Blonde women do _not_ feel more entitled.
Blonde women are _not_ more prone to anger
Blonde women do _not_ feel more attractive than other women.
Blonde women are _not_ more militaristic.
(This last analysis about militarism controls for ethnicity, a necessary control because political attitudes are correlated with ethnicity and social class. Moreover, women of European ancestry constitute essentially the only ethnic group in the sample whose members could be blonde or not, and there is _no_ relationship among them between blondeness and attitudes toward use of the military. Any analysis of “blondeness” that does not control for ethnicity on questions about political attitudes creates the possibility that one could find a spurious correlation, because women of Asian and African-American ancestry (e.g.) are never blonde. I explained this to Mr. Harlow, and explained that this means _there is no evidence in my data that blondeness causes militaristic attitudes._)

The data aside, Mr. Harlow attributes statements to me, in quotation marks, that I have never said:

I have never published, researched, thought about, or used the phrase, “Princess Effect.”
I did not refer to Southern California as the “homeland of the privileged blonde.”
I never speculated on why blondes would be less likely to be in fights (which is not true anyway).
I have no evidence whatsoever on the effects of dying one’s hair blonde.

Of course, it’s also noted that Reporters Without Borders ranks the UK higher than the US when it comes to freedom of the press, leading the professor to claim that perhaps the UK press is a little too free when it feels comfortable making such totally unsubstantiated claims.

I’d be curious if some of our UK readers could weigh in on all of this, as it does sound a bit extreme. We’re all familiar with newspapers twisting stories or getting facts wrong, but the description here seems a bit ridiculous. Also, as we well know, the UK has very strict libel laws, and it seems like outright lying could get a reporter in trouble pretty quickly, so it sounds odd and surprising that it would be done often, if at all. In the meantime, if all of this is true, it again makes me wonder about those who seem to think that a strong press is important. What they really mean is that good reporting is important, and that does not appear to be the same thing.

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Comments on “Does Freedom Of The Press In The UK Include Just Making Things Up?”

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The Anti-Mike (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

Interesting. The quotes are specific to him. Perhaps he forgot giving an interview to someone, or was quoted off a public appearance or something?

Other than that, it looks like pure fabrication, or perhaps they used a third party report as the basis for their article.

While this one came after, it’s amazing how close their information seems to be:

Sadly, the original article is behind a “paywall”, so we might never know what is really in it.

Add this:

19 January 2010: This story has been revised after Dr Sell made clear to the BBC that his research had set out to test the link between temperament and attractiveness, rather than hair colour, for which he said the link was weaker.

It would appear that many in the media have been mislead, I wonder what the source is.

ethorad (profile) says:

I’m rather disappointed by that – I remember reading the article and being amused by the research.

A lot of the press (in the UK at least) seems to be run by arts graduates, so as soon as there’s a piece involving numbers or science some basic misunderstandings do keep coming through – although I always assumed that they were making mistakes in summarising a bunch of press releases or something rather than just making stuff up.

On the making stuff up front though, I see Blair is giving evidence on the war in Iraq today …

Nick says:

While drewmerc may be putting it a little strongly with “a history of bullshit…” the UK press certainly does not have a very god history…

To answer the question, yes… they do make things up or deliberately exadgerate details but safe in the knowledge that a printed retraction is usally enough to get them off the hook and avoid court.

By then, the sensationalist (or made up story) has sold their papers and then will sell them again when people but it to read the actual story.

It used to be relativly rare for the broadsheets (UK term that is outdated now that referred to the size of the paper as opposed to the smaller tabloids. The times is technically still a broadsheet but publishes now in tabloid) to engage in this but the tabloids do it regularly. The broadsheets are also now getting in on the act but it is still uncommon for a paper like the times to do it. The telegraph and FT the only 2 papers I trust to give a (mostly) accurate story

Hence my comment on a post earlier this week calling the Mirror a joke. It was not an arrogent one as I was accused of. Most readers do not believe what they read in the sun and the mirror.

JackSombra (profile) says:

Does Freedom Of The Press In The UK Include Just Making Things Up?

Err yes. Same as the US.

Just read any copy of the Sun, Mirror and you realise they can say anything they want.

In the US see the likes of National Enquirer or National Examiner

The only “risk” they run is of getting sued (and would say in this example guy would have a case in the UK with so many “false” direct quotes attributed to him and the harm they they might cause to his career)

Normally don’t see such obvious cases in the likes of the Times, but last few years it has been going quite a bit downhill

Anonymous Coward says:

Please criminalise this behaviour

Misrepresenting scientific findings to the public should be considered a crime, and a very serious one.

The example here is trivial — hair colour isn’t exactly a big deal — but it demonstrates with depressing clarity just how easy it is for journalists to get things horribly, horribly wrong with zero repercussions. Even to the point of misquoting the researcher!

This sort of behaviour should be, at minimum, career-ending. Even better, the researcher ought to be entitled to press charges against the journalist who abused their work.

It’s hard enough for real scientific findings to filter their way down to the public when the press is being cooperative. When they are being maliciously deceptive, there isn’t a chance.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Please criminalise this behaviour

Misrepresenting scientific findings to the public should be considered a crime, and a very serious one.

It’s hard enough for real scientific findings to filter their way down to the public when the press is being cooperative. When they are being maliciously deceptive, there isn’t a chance.

Why did the name “Al Gore” keep coming to mind as I read that comment?? Something about the arctic being free of ice by 2014…

Ryan says:

Re: Re:

I wish people would seriously shut up about Fox News. I don’t watch it and they’re obviously biased, but all MSM is biased and incompetent nowadays. FN has more talking-head opinion programs than elsewhere(and they are outspoken), but their actual news coverage is usually to found to be more balanced than other networks, e.g. CNN, CBS, NBC, etc. in specific studies. MSM in general is pretty bad right now, not just the coverage you personally disagree with.

Richard (profile) says:

UK Newspapers

What you have to remember is how many are now owned by Rupert Murdoch.

Aside from that, a friend of mine was once involved in a story (a legal case) that made a moderate news impact (in the UK). At the end he was dismayed by the level of accuracy of the press reports. He said that if the accuracy of reporting of major stories was as bad as the reports about his case then we effectively don’t know what is going on in political circles at all.

He did however exempt one newspaper from this general castigation. The paper in question was of course the Guardian.

Bengie says:

I would like to quote...

New research by Bill Gates of Berkley shows that unicorns ARE real! “Unicorn are magical and fart rainbows[…]” – Gates

Wow, this could really be fun.

May be I can send a story to the local paper.

“Police officer tell me to go “F” myself then steals my wallet but the Chief of Police won’t do anything about it”

“You F’r can’t do shit!” – Chief of Police

yeah.. this will go over well. But I can say whatever I like to, right?

Anony1 says:

FROM WIKIPEDIA: “RWB is careful to note that the index only deals with press freedom, and does not measure the quality of journalism. Due to the nature of the survey’s methodology based on individual perceptions, there are often wide contrasts in a country’s ranking from year to year.”

Now if you want to talk about useless surveys, there you are.

Dave says:

Lies, damn lies

It’s well known that the UK press makes up stories, embellishes quotes or just lies through its teeth to make a story juicier. I once had a letter published in one of the tabloids and, although it contained the (very) broad outline of the point I was trying to get over, the actual wording bore no resemblance to what I actually wrote, being “translated” completely and changed into the banal, inane and childish language of that particular newspaper. I considered myself to be insulted and never read it again.

Ferruccio (profile) says:

looks like a good case for a libel lawsuit

On the facts as presented, Dr Sell should sue for libel (in the UK of course) and likely get an off-court settlement for a juicy sum of money AND a prominent retraction and apology. With the prospects so good, he should have no trouble finding strong lawyers (barristers, whatever) to take the case on contingency fees.

Graham Jones - Internet Psychologist (user link) says:

This is a typical non-complaint

As someone who is regularly interviewed by the media in the UK I have sympathy and understanding of the original complaint. But as someone who is also a UK journalist I am able to see things from both sides of the divide.

Firstly, it is common for people to complain they never said something, when in fact, they did. I have recordings of people saying things which they have denied saying. We regularly forget the exact words we used. Most UK journalists will take them down in 120 words a minute shorthand at the very least. There is a chance that Dr Sell did use the words attributed to him.

Secondly, in UK law the words in quotation marks are NOT required to have actually been spoken by the person “quoted”. British law requires journalists only to convey the exact meaning of the original words. For the most part this means that journalists do use the original words, but there are several editorial reasons why the original words are not used. For instance, they may be grammatically incorrect, or the actual words themselves may be libelous unless changed. Equally, the words may not be in “house style” – what would read OK in The Times would not be OK in The Sun, for instance.

As a psychologist I know that people are often shocked to read in print something they actually said – and recall saying. Something about the “reality” of the words appears to make them worry. This is particularly the case in professional scientists who fear reputational damage as a result of the article.

Furthermore, Dr Sell appears to complain that The Times attributes things to him which he did not claim or say. But the original article does not attribute these things to him. For instance, he complains that he has never used the phrase “princess effect”. That may well be true, but the article does not say he did. The phrase is in quotes, but not attributed. In other words, this could be a phrase which other people the reporter spoke to used. People interviewed often forget – or don’t want to consider – that journalists will speak to other people on the topic being written about. These people will contribute phrases to the article, which the complainant then assumes are theirs, when in fact they are not.

Having said all this, science reporting in the UK is not good. Indeed, I had to complain myself this week about errors made in The Sunday Times. However, to suggest that the UK media “make things up” is disingenuous itself. They make mistakes, for sure, but in Dr Sell’s case the things he complains about as being made up were not. They are misinterpretations perhaps, influences and comments from other researchers and commentators, perhaps and mistakes in shorthand note-taking, perhaps.

Researchers frequently want the media to simply publish their findings without comment or influence from others. What scientists do not like, it seems, is the publication of their findings being open to discussion. But the article Dr Sell complains about has quotations from three other people and is clearly influenced by research from others as well. That will impact on the way his findings are reported; but that is good reporting. Otherwise, newspapers will merely become publishers of press releases.

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