Saturday, 13 July 2013

Headlines in Science: io9 and Objectifying Women

This is the first post in a series on headlines in science communication. This one is from last year, but I'm going to talk about it because it's a particularly egregious example of a terrible headline.

One of the blogs I read is io9, a blog about science, technology, and nerdy things in general. Normally I enjoy frequenting this part of the internet. But in this case they participated in the all-too-common trend of headline inflation - that is, taking some research, adding an interpretation to it that wasn't in the original but that makes it more attention-grabbing, and then making that interpretation the headline. In this case, the research was this, an article (unfortunately behind a paywall) that sought to quantify the mental processes that drive the objectification of women's bodies.

I won't go into all the details, but basically the study looked at how likely people were to notice changes in specific body parts in pictures of men and women, and how easily they identified pictures they saw earlier from a picture of just one part of the person. It was a study looking at the way the minds of the participants worked, while assuming throughout that a) objectification is a bad thing, and b) studying the way the mind works could help us combat it.

Move on over to the Scientific American blog post covering the story. Here the bare facts are reported, and the post stresses that objectification is harmful, and points to an experiment that could lead to a better understanding of how to put your brain into a non-objectifying mode. But the author also wants to get at more than just what is in the study, so we get this quote:

There could be evolutionary reasons that men and women process female bodies differently, Gervais said, but because both genders do it, "the media is probably a prime suspect."

Note that the quote they got from the study author (Gervais) says "the media is probably a prime suspect," but the post author chose to place it in a context that implies that evolutionary reasons are also a possibility, something not mentioned at all in the research article. Obviously, I have no idea what their conversation was, but it seems like the journalist asked whether evolution could have hardwired us for this, and the study author gave a researcher's version of "no." Bear in mind that scientists get good reputations by not being wrong, so they tend to hedge any statements they make, especially ones on which they don't have conclusive data from multiple sources. The journalist here took that "no" and shaped it into a sentence that comes across as a "maybe..." It's a little sad, but not entirely unexpected.

Now we get to the io9 article. The headline is "Both men and women may be hardwired to objectify women's bodies". At least, it was (I'll get to that in a bit.) At this point, my question for io9 is, WHAT THE HELL?!?! With one headline they took an article whose goal was to help reduce objectification, and turned it into something that could be used as an excuse to keep doing it. The comments indicated that a number of people took it exactly as that. (One comment: "I'm staring at your titties because of science baby. Pure science." Presumably not the reaction the study author was hoping for.) I appreciate the fact that io9 wants to increase their page views, since that is how they generate revenue, but completely inverting the subject of research in a way that harms the people the research was trying to help so that more people are directed to their blog is despicable. There's no way to soften that or justify what they've done here.

Just in case that wasn't bad enough, the article title was changed, after a number of the comments pointed out that it was completely at odds with the research it was reporting. Now it reads, "Why both men and women's eyes are drawn to women's bodies." Perhaps no more accurate, but at least less offensive. (The original title is still in the web address). But, there's no mention in the article that this has been edited. So now, the numerous people who made comments suggesting that this was a sexist attempt to increase page views are left sounding like they over-reacted to a straightforward article. If you're going to correct a mistake on a thing like this, the least you could do is fess up to it. Not that would have undone the damage. Since io9 is a high volume blog, even someone who checks in once a day won't ever see the article again, unless they scroll down the sidebar looking for it. All in all, this amazing double-whammy might be the biggest science journalism fail I've seen in a long time.

This whole episode is a sad illustration of the process that creates terrible headlines, and the damage they can do. To start with, the science being reported on was an exploratory work; an initial study that will presumably be followed by others to given more nuance and context. Exploratory work often turns out to be incorrect, and when it is correct, the best interpretation is bounced around the research community, often for years, until the work is settled in context with other work and theories, and a story emerges. Any take-home messages that are suggested before then are, at best, the opinion of one researcher regarding the significance of their own work, or at worst, the opinion of one editor regarding work in a field they have only a passing knowledge of. This type of science needs to be considered especially carefully as it is especially prone to bad headlines.

The next step in this sad process is the multiple layers of sensationalizing. Here there were three levels: the original blog at Scientific American, the article at io9, then finally the headline for that article. Each level pushed the conclusions from the original research into more sensational, and less accurate, territory, until the point was completely lost.

Finally, the damage. Though the body of the article never makes the statement the headline does, it's pretty clear from the comments that a number of people assumed the headline was the conclusion of the research being reported on. And why not? Isn't that the point of a headline? It's difficult to quantify this, but it's safe to say that, for each person that took the time to comment on the article, many more simply saw the headline and added it to their internal "facts I know" database.

The process by which this headline went wrong suggests some things that could be done. First, read the original research. I know that paywalls are a problem for many science enthusiasts, but there's really no excuse for a professional journalist to not get a copy of the original article. Reporting on a report on some research is bound to introduce distortions. Second (and this will be a theme), the headline should be tossed back as far as possible. What I mean by this is that in the worst case scenario, the headline is okayed by the journalist writing the article, and in the best case, by the scientist actually doing the research. This won't always be realistic given news timelines, but throwing the headline back as far as possible to double-check it can only help.

So, thank you, io9, for that wonderful illustration of how to be completely terrible at making headlines. I sincerely hope the rest of the articles in this little series have far less to work with.

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