Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Sex, Lies and Journalism

The Washington Post recently ran "Study First to Link TV Sex to Real Teen Pregnancies," an article destined from the headline to incite controversies. Maybe because the editors knew that 90% of the Post audience would read this story, they overlooked the fact that it's not a very well-written article.

There are the standard journalistic no-nos: relying too heavily on a single source (in this case Anita Chandra, who gets top billing because she claims that sexy TV leads to teen pregnancy. The author also buries opposing viewpoints at the end of the study, and gives the middle of the article over to regurgitated arguments over the value of abstinence-only sex education.

The treatment of the subject also highlights the importance of having journalists write about subjects they are familiar with. Even a beginning sociology student would have realized that this study gave way too much credence to the theory that TV sex led to teen pregnancy. As my college economics professors constantly reminded us, correlation is not causation.

For starters, teens attracted to sex on TV might be more interested in sex to begin with (after all, isn't this akin to saying that people who watch the Food Channel are more likely to cook? Isn't that the standard spiel Food Channel sales folks give to advertisers?) For another, kids who watch a lot of TV probably don't spend as much time on school/homework/a job/etc, which means they also have more free time for sex.

These are just a few of the powerful arguments against the study's validity. The first (that teens who like sex will watch sexy TV) does come up in a quote at the very end of the article. But in my opinion, a responsible journalist would have put that argument first.

As written, this article is nothing but fodder for teen-sex alarmists, rather than the examination of a sociological phenomenon that it could be.

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