Psychologist Satoshi Kanazawa doesn't mince his words in his column for Psychology Today:
British Newspapers Make Things Up
Most people reading this will probably, at one stage or another, had that exasperated, angry moment when they realised that what they were reading in their newspaper, presented as fact, was patently not fact at all. Then there was probably that other moment, when we realised it wasn't just the red-top tabloids who were capable of lying to us, but even the big-boy newspapers who claim to be respectable. Kanazawa has written about it before, and has now seen that moment of realisation strike a colleague:
In the earlier post, I explain that, by the American standards, all British newspapers are tabloids because they don’t distinguish between what is true and what they make up. I knew this from my own experiences of dealing with British journalists, but, as it turns out, even the British government admits, in an official government publication, that British newspapers make things up and report them as facts.
Most British people consider the Times of London to be the most respectable “broadsheet” newspaper (as opposed to “tabloid” newspapers) in the UK... Last week, the Sunday Times published an article with the headline “Blonde women born to be warrior princesses.” 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.
For newspapers, though, including the Times, who may have done the stuff themselves or simply C&V'd it off a fellow publication, none of this matters. It doesn't matter what the contents of things actually is, so long as it makes a good story. You can see this in a couple of ways, and I'm always torn. Is it agenda-driven nonsense on a mission to distort, or is it simply ignorant contempt of telling the truth and desperation to make 'a good story', no matter how misleading it might be? I think it varies. Perhaps we can be charitable and say the Sunday Times story was simply crass journalism and highly ignorant. That might be better.
This is eerily reminiscent of my own experience with a British journalist. He interviewed me in 2006 about one of my articles, which demonstrates, among other things, that the average intelligence of a population is positively correlated with the health of the population everywhere in the world, except in Africa. The headline of the article he wrote? “Low IQs are Africa’s curse, says lecturer.”
Kanazawa doesn't mention the publication by name, but it was the Observer. Like I said the other day, it's important to get these things right, because of the effect they have on the people involved; but there's an additional element. Look at the glee with which that headline was snapped up by the Stormfront ultra-nationalist forum:
That's why it's important to get things right. Sure, it might be 'a better story' if you can hammer someone else's quotes and carefully thought out academic views into a couple of handy paragraphs that don't quite say the same thing, but there's nothing wrong in reporting something complicated as being complicated - in fact, it's demonstrably harmful to do so, playing into the hands of extremists.
I hope American and British readers (and readers throughout the world) will finally wake up to the reality of British journalism: You just cannot believe what you read in British newspapers. I’d further call on my academic colleagues on both sides of the Atlantic never to speak to British reporters. You have absolutely no control over what they say about you and your scientific research.
The only hope is that there are greater opportunities nowadays for those involved in damaging newspaper reports to voice their concerns and put their side of the story - not just as a couple of sentences 'for balance' at the end of the article, but by publishing a response that can be widely seen through the internet. That's something positive, but it wouldn't even be necessary if we could trust our press to get things right, to represent things accurately without misleading. But I am not so sure we can.
Thanks to @flinderella for the nudge!
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