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14.3 Media Reports of Sociological Research

Learning Objectives

  1. Cite the major differences between scholarly and media reports of sociological research.
  2. Identify the kinds of questions that may remain unanswered in media reports of sociological research.

As you have probably already gathered, we are likely to encounter sociological research in the news and other media. For example, check out the American Sociological Association’s media coverage links (http://www.asanet.org/press/media_coverage_highlights.cfm). There you’ll see that for just one study, on the consequences of parental divorce for child development (Kim, 2011),Kim, H. S. (2011). Consequences of parental divorce for child development. American Sociological Review, 76, 487–511. there were 170 news articles describing the study and its findings over the course of one month, June 2011. This particular study provides a good example of the difference between the information provided about a study in a scholarly journal article and the media’s coverage of the same study.

Figure 14.2

A recent sociological study of the impact of parental divorce on children was covered in 170 popular media sources in one month alone.

Let’s look at some of the differences between the aforementioned study’s coverage in the media and its treatment in a scholarly journal. First, watch the following coverage from The View’s August 24, 2011, program: http://theview.abc.go.com/video/hot-topics-effects-divorce-kids. Once you have watched the clip, ask yourself what you have learned about the study. Who conducted the research described? What are the study’s key findings? How many people participated in the study? Who were those participants? What sorts of data were analyzed? Which findings were statistically significant? Also note what questions you still have about the study. Where might you go to get the answers to your questions?

After watching The View clip several times, I was able to gather that the study has two key findings: (a) a child is more negatively affected by losing a parent to divorce than by the tension that leads to the breakup, and (b) children’s math scores drop after a divorce but reading and “other skills” do not suffer. As far as who participated, I heard that “3-year-olds and so on” were the participants, though I am not certain how many of them participated. I also don’t know who conducted the study, who (if anyone) provided funding for the study, when the data were collected, and so on. But if you review the article published in the American Sociological Review (ASR) that reports results of the study, all these questions are answered.

You might be saying to yourself, “So what?” Perhaps you took note that The View coverage does mention that the study was published in the ASR. If you did notice this, then kudos to you. Because the ASR is a peer-reviewed publication of the American Sociological Association, we should have some confidence that the study is reputable. But we still don’t hear all the information that might shape what we choose to take away from this study. For example, a review of the ASR article will tell us that the data come from a sample of people who were in kindergarten from 1998 to 1999. Perhaps that is of little consequence, but we might wish to pause to consider whether or how our cultural social context has shifted since 1998 and how that might impact how kindergartners today respond to parental divorce. I am not at all suggesting that only studies whose data are seconds or days old hold value. (If that were the case, I’d say we can safely disregard any of my own publications.) Instead, I want to call your attention to some of the questions you might ask yourself as a responsible consumer of research.

In addition to all the times that sociological research does make the news, there are also instances when it does not but probably should. In June 2011, for example, an article on children’s gender nonconformity appeared in the New York Times (Hoffman).Hoffman, J. (2011, June 10). “Boys will be boys?” Not in these families. New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/12/fashion/new-challenge-for-parents-childrens-gender-roles.html?pagewanted=all The article took the perspective that children’s expressions of gender were natural and biologically ingrained. While we cannot say for certain that this isn’t true, we do know from many years of reputable and highly regarded research by sociologists of gender that gender norms and behaviors are in many cases constructed socially, not biologically. That the article omits this perspective and the voices of sociologists who do research in this area is unfortunate—both for New York Times’ readers and for sociology.

Keeping in mind your knowledge about sociology and sociological research the next time you come across descriptions of sociological research in various media outlets, ask yourself some questions about the research you encounter.

  1. Where do you see sociological research described?
  2. How is it described?
  3. What information is present, and what is missing from the media account of sociological research?
  4. How and where might you access the details that are missing?

Keep an eye out for the absence of sociological research as well and consider the following:

  1. Are there programs or news stories that might be well served to incorporate sociological research findings?
  2. How might the inclusion of sociological research shift the story?

By asking yourself these questions as you go about your daily routine, you will have integrated sociological research into your everyday life.

Key Takeaways

  • Media reports of sociological research, while important, may leave key questions about the research unanswered.
  • When reading media reports of sociological research, it is useful to follow up your reading by checking the original scholarly source in which the research is reported.

Exercises

  1. Find a report of scholarly research in a nonscholarly source other than a newspaper. What would you say are the key takeaways reported by the nonscholarly source? Next, find and read a scholarly source’s report of the same research. What would you say are the key takeaways reported by the scholarly source? How do the takeaways from each source differ? How are they similar? How has your own understanding of the work changed by reading the scholarly report?
  2. Find a news story that you think could have be strengthened by the inclusion of sociological research. How might the inclusion of sociological research shift the story?