How Media Distorts Scientific Results

A personal experience with media's power

Posted Aug 27, 2011

I was thrilled to arrive at my talk and see the room nearly filled and received a wonderful introduction by one of my favorite people in the world, former APA president Patrick DeLeon, recipient of APA's prestigious Outstanding Lifetime Contribution to Psychology Award just two years ago at the same conference. From the questions and comments I felt that the talk went well and left with a feeling of success on treading that fine line between presenting research and theory and a controversial topic that has continuously been bashed in the press.

From the date that the press release was posted-about two weeks before the talk-I had been fielding interviews at the rate of about two to three or more a day. When the talk was completed that escalated to 5-10 a day with numerous requests for the PowerPoint slides from my talk. Having been through this before, and having presented such new research that papers had not yet been written and submitted for publication, I added a note to both the title of the PowerPoint file (Poke_Me_Presentation_8-6-2011_FINAL_DO_NOT_QUOTE_WITHOUT_PERMISSION.ppt) and the first slide which read:


Any time I received an e-mail request for the PowerPoint slides I responded and mentioned everything in the slide note above and said that if that were agreeable then I would send the talk in a separate e-mail. Every single reporter agreed and the slides were distributed to at least 50 news outlets. Needless to say, with a topic such as social networking, there was a lot of interest and I did a steady stream of interviews.

When the articles started to be posted I felt that many of the reporters handled it with evenhanded fairness of the information in my talk. Of course, some highlighted the negatives but in all of my interviews-including print, radio and television-I discussed how there were, indeed, both positives and negatives to social networking and requested that the reporter focus on both.

Much to my surprise, a couple of days after my talk I started to get interview requests to talk about how social networking made kids drink alcohol. I was stunned. Certainly I know I had not said that to any reporter nor had I mentioned that in my talk but just to be sure I went back and to my dismay discovered that on one slide (out of 76) I had summarized the results of a study (one out of 10 of our studies that I quoted) where we examined the predictive relationship between technology use-specifically looking at Facebook activities-and signs and symptoms of psychological disorders. Buried amidst a list of disorders where Facebook use predicted signs and symptoms I noticed that I had included Alcohol Dependence as one in which Facebook was a significant predictor. Being a scientist I guess that I was erring on the side of being complete but this was only one of 10 disorders that Facebook use predicted. If only I knew the ramifications of that one obsessive desire for completeness I never would have included that on the slide.

Here's what happened as best as I can recreate. On August 6th, the day of the presentation, as soon as the APA embargo was lifted an article appeared in a highly respected newspaper with the statement that read, "Rosen reported that among users of all ages, using Facebook more was associated with having a higher risk of antisocial personality disorder, paranoia, anxiety and alcohol use." I was exceedingly careful in both my talk and slides to indicate that Facebook use predicted signs and symptoms of certain disorders and indeed "alcohol dependence" was one of those disorders. How had my message gotten twisted to include "alcohol use" instead of signs and symptoms of alcohol dependence? And worse yet, when I Googled my name coupled with Facebook and alcohol, I realized that the story had been picked up by the (mostly conservative) media including one quite poignant article by Dr. Keith Ablow who proclaimed, "It should come as no surprise, then, that a new study by Dr. Larry Rosen, a professor at Cal State Dominguez Hills, shows that teenagers who use Facebook are more likely to use alcohol ... That makes sense: One drug (Facebook) should pave the way for the use of another (alcohol). And escaping reality by using drugs does indeed kindle irrational beliefs about oneself and the world." I can't tell you how many news organizations have picked up that tiny thread of the story mostly because I don't have the heart or stomach to look anymore. On the day the story came out there were dozens and I am sure that now there are more.

I immediately emailed the reporter who told me via e-mail, "I think when a person reads alcohol dependence, you immediately think more alcohol use. I used that term instead to sound less like jargon, and more easy to read." As a researcher who applies psychological science to real-world issues comments such as the reporter's scare me. I insisted that she print a retraction or correction and after several rounds of back and forth emails she agreed and printed a correction.

When all was said and done I realized that the fact that my talk title mentioned how social networking could "help" AND "harm" children meant nothing to the media. It turned into a several week slugfest with a few news titles appearing to both support my thesis and discuss both sides while others were clearly slanted toward the negative. Here's a sampling of article titles:

  • "Heavy Use of Facebook linked with psychological problems for kids and teens, researcher says."
  • "Facebook: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly"
  • "Facebook makes teens narcissistic, anxious and depressed - but also nice, social and engaged"
  • "Facebook: Breeding Ground for Teen Narcissists?"
  • "Heavy use of Facebook linked with psychological problems for kids and teens, researcher says"
  • "Do social networking sites create anti-social behavior?"
  • "Facebook making kids dumb"

And, my all-time favorite:

"Psychologist: Facebook Harmful to Kids"

Overall, I would say that maybe 10% of the articles dealt with both sides of the issue but that is to be expected since controversy sells newspapers.

Sadly, misquoting research does not just happen in the media. I recalled a worse situation that I read about a few months ago where an article in Pediatrics, a well-respected journal and, as noted at the top of each article, "Official Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics." The article seemed innocuous enough by its title: Clinical Report: The Impact of Social Media on Children, Adolescents, and Families" and I was intrigued since this fit well with the topic of my next book. I was particularly struck by a section titled "Facebook Depression" since I was writing about how technology can make people depressed or at least show the signs and symptoms of depression. The article stated, "Researchers have proposed a new phenomenon called "Facebook depression," defined as depression that develops when preteens and teens spend a great deal of time on social media sites, such as Facebook, and then begin to exhibit classic symptoms of depression." Following this sentence were references numbered 22-27 so I excitedly flipped to the last page and found that the first reference was to an article by Davila, Stroud, Starr et al. so I contacted Dr. Davila at Stony Brook who told me her story about being misquoted by the author of the study. In fact, Dr. Davila had created a web page just to dispel what she called "The ‘Facebook Depression' Controversy." It's an interesting page to read but the basic upshot is that Dr. Davila was misquoted in the media as having said that "Texting, instant messaging and social networking make it very easy for adolescents to become even more anxious, which can lead to depression." It is the last phrase that created a life of its own and the message that Facebook causes depression spread. Sadly, the authors of the Pediatrics piece picked up on one of these reports and published it without contacting Dr. Davila for corroboration.

So, what are scientists to do to keep the media from inaccurately quoting their work or even from having professionals in the field publish inaccurate results because they chose to not pursue the facts but instead to believe the media reports? My naïve professional view from years in academia says that we, as scientists, should be able to help the media better understand our work and its meaning in a larger context. But, sadly, my experience suggests that that is impossible. Should we simply resist the media? I agree with Dr. Davila who says on her controversy page, "Sadly one message that one could take from all of this is to never interact with the media again. That would be a shame as dissemination of scientific information is critical. Instead, I have learned an important lesson about what and what not to say to the media, regardless of the questions asked. This experience will now make me much more careful so as to make sure that inaccurate information is not disseminated. Indeed, dissemination of inaccurate information is dangerous and perhaps worse than no dissemination at all." She closes her message by saying, "The media should not be creating science. The media should be accurately reporting science. And scholarly journals should be reporting information based on science, not on media reports." I agree and I plan to pay closer attention to anything I say to the media and any materials that I disseminate.