How the Media Skew Gender Research

An important parenting study came out in March. It tracked the effects of good fathering on 19,000 children born in 2000 and 2001 and found that by age three a child would have more emotional and behavioral problems if the father had not taken time off after the birth. Don't recall reading about it? You don't remember seeing experts lined up on the morning news shows to explain how crucial the findings were, or advocacy groups noting how this proves it's important to support paternity leave?

That's probably because, although such a study was indeed published, it got virtually no media attention.

However, another study, published the same month, did get that kind of attention, from outlets ranging from ABC's Good Morning America to the New York Times. The key difference was that study was not about fathers at all. It was about daycare and its possible deleterious behavioral effects on children, especially when compared to children reared by stay-at-home mothers. It found that children who had attended high-quality daycare had better vocabularies as late as age ten, but also exhibited more "problem behavior," with their teachers more likely to report aggression and disobedience. The researchers stressed that the children's behavior was "within the normal range and was not considered clinically disordered".

But the popularized message was a little different, at least as seen in the headlines selected for reports on the study. The Times chose "Poor Behavior Is Linked to Time in Day Care." The International Herald Tribune picked "Study Links Extensive Child Care with More Aggressive Behavior in School." And the Telegraph of the U.K. went with the even more guilt-inducing "How Nurseries 'Still Breed Aggression'."

Now what could possibly explain the difference in the media treatment these two studies got? As Caryl Rivers speculates in her new book, Selling Anxiety: How the News Media Scare Women, could it just be that studies that appear to support traditional roles for women tend to get picked for instant popularization? This phenomenon doesn't just apply to studies about daycare with the potential to guilt-trip working mothers. Rush Limbaugh, also last March, cheerfully reported the results of a Swedish study that seemed to show a correlation between poor health and a more gender-equal distribution of societal resources. That same study was picked up by the British Independent. The popularized message was that feminism makes you sick.

Neither Rush Limbaugh nor the Independent paid any attention to an earlier study by the same researchers showing the reverse. They also ignored other studies finding a positive correlation between greater gender-equality and better overall health.

It seems that a researcher can garner more press just by publishing a study with results that social conservatives wish to hear. And if the research doesn't suit conservatives' worldview, they can always find a way to twist it. Take, for example, the "Queen Bee" syndrome: the idea that women in managerial positions wish to remain the only females at that level of power and achieve this by sabotaging the careers of other women. The "Queen Bees" were a hot topic of discussion in conservative circles of the internet a few months ago. Why? Because a sociological study, not about "Queen Bees" at all, found that women rated the promotion chances of a fictional female manager as lower than did the men in the same study, and the researchers of the study decided to call this "prejudice."

It could very well be that the women in the study rated the fictional female manager's promotion chances as lower because women, in general, get promoted less often than men. The study summary points this out. But this is not the interpretation the media ran with. Somehow the most prominent analysis was the office "Queen Bees" theory, never mind that the women in the study were randomly drawn from the general population and unlikely to be female managers in the first place. As a Times of London article on the study stated, "Forget 'jobs for the boys'. Women bosses are significantly more likely than men to discriminate against female employees, research has suggested."

Except that it is the Times article that suggests this, not the original study. And it is this same Times article that Rush Limbaugh then used to justify his habit of calling House Speaker Nancy Pelosi "Queen Bee Nancy." So are memes created.

As Rivers documents in her carefully researched book, this begins to look like a pattern. Over and over again, studies that appeal to anti-feminists and social conservatives gain media traction, while the ones that come to opposite conclusions languish in obscurity.

For instance, the traditionalists always like studies with results showing large gender differences that support the old-fashioned sex roles. A great example is the Pew Internet & American Life Project, which in 2005 found that women and men differ in their use of the Internet:

More men, 30%, than women, 25%, said the internet helped them a lot to learn more about what was going on, while more women, 56%, than men, 50%, said it helped them connect with people they needed to reach. These differences are statistically significant.

But when filtered through the media, these findings are interpreted as: "If there is an overall pattern of differences here, it is that men value the Internet for the breadth of experiences it offers, and women value it for the human connections." Another headline simplified that interpretation even further, trumpeting that "Men want facts, women seek relations on Web-survey."

A difference of at most six percent became an absolute gulf between the sexes, and the media exclaim, "Women are relational, men are factual!"

Rivers throws this picture into greater relief . As a veteran observer of journalism, her book tells you what you need to know about the man or the woman behind the curtain. In the book's introduction she writes:

When I was a young reporter, women were held in such low regard as makers and consumers of news that their concerns were usually relegated to a low-prestige "women's page." Today, one of the most desirable demographics among news consumers is affluent women, and stories that create anxiety over women and achievement sell well to that demographic. The news media today sell anxiety to women the way that advertising sells insecurity about their faces, bodies and sex appeal. Tell women that their children are going to be wrecks if they take their work seriously or that men will reject them if they get a good job, and you'll get their attention fast. Or tell them that they are out of the new mainstream by not wanting to focus their lives on husbands and family and you'll get "buzz".

In the following chapters, Rivers goes on to explain how this anxiety is created and sold, in fields ranging from childrearing to electoral politics. But note that while affluent women are the targets of these anxiety-inducing articles, they also provide a great service to the social conservative movement. In any case, these "buzz-generating" stories can capture more than one market segment at the same time.

Too bad that they so often fail to capture truth.