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Media Literacy – Spinning the Facts

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You may have noticed an article in your newspaper or news story on television over the past week touting a study suggesting teens can learn important sexual education lessons from popular entertainment television shows like (keep an open mind)… Friends.

Most of us have been trained to accept studies by recognized organizations at face value. In this case, the research was conducted by think-tank pioneers RAND Health (www.rand.org) and funded by the Kaiser Family Foundation (www.kff.org).

What’s important to recognize is the writer of the blurb in your local paper hasn’t spent hours pouring over the raw statistical data of this study. Instead he or she has snatched the press release sent out from RAND Health and has summarized it or—as was the case with a couple of media outlets I observed—seized upon one small part of the study’s results that attests television can be (quoting from the conclusion written by the study’s authors) “a healthy sex educator.”

But, as is often the case with published studies, there’s so much more to this story if we are willing to do some reading and a little math.

The conclusion of this study’s abstract published on the website of Pediatrics, and hangs it’s belief on an episode of the popular series where the character Rachel becomes pregnant after having sex with another character named Ross. Surprised at the news, Ross questions how it could happen because they used a condom. Twice during the show it is stated “condoms are only 97% effective.”

Excited at the prospect of a sexual teaching moment in prime time, researchers at RAND got on the phone and called 506 teens that were part of a larger study and regular viewers of Friends. Of those, 27% or about 137 actually watched the episode. Unfortunately only 65% (89 people) of those viewers were able to recall the plot included a scenario about a condom failing and the resulting unplanned pregnancy.

Of those, 40% or 55 watched this particular episode with an adult, and a meager 10% (14 viewers) actually discussed the plot afterwards with an adult.

It’s from this group of 14 that RAND mines the golden nugget. When asked, these 14 are quoted as being “less likely to reduce their perceptions of condom efficacy after the episode.” (In other words, with the help of an adult they managed to retain the message that condoms are usually 97% effective -- even though Rachel got pregnant.)

In RAND’s news release, the study’s lead author, psychologist Rebecca Collins says, "We've always known that teenagers get useful information about sex from factual reporting and advice-oriented media, but now we know they can get this information from entertainment television programs as well."

Her words certainly fly in the face of those who claim television has little or no moral influence on young audiences, however words like “useful” and “healthy” are subjective and her conclusion is stretched.

To emphasize the point, 14 out of 506 regular viewers of friends increased their confidence in condoms. That’s the “healthy” message. But what are the other 492 concluding after spending an evening with their Friends? And does gaining greater confidence in condoms come at the expense of tossing aside abstinence?

In fairness to RAND, they do acknowledge some of the negative consequences exhibited by the questioned teens. Quoting the news release, “About half of the teenage viewers interpreted the episode as showing that ‘lots of times condoms don't prevent pregnancy.’”

Collins also recognizes the program’s message was “accurate, but a bit ambiguous,” causing some kids to “come away thinking that condoms aren’t worth using.”

But the bottom line is your local media are touting that Friends is a great place to take sex-ed at home. And your teens may be happy to believe it.

The old adage in media has always been “dog bites man” isn’t news. But “man bites dog” is headline material. Learning positive sexual advice from Friends is akin to a toddler sinking her teeth into a rottweiler. It’s a story that sells newspapers and television commercials.

The resulting “spin” on the raw data has come from two sources. First, the authors of this research study were determined to prove a particular theory, and while they have included information that contradicts their outcome, they have carefully written their conclusion. Even though only 2.8% of these regular viewers had a change of perspective due to watching this one particular episode of Friends, their summary says “entertainment television can serve as a healthy sex educator…” That small can is a huge conditional term.

The final spin, and probably the one with the greatest twist, happens in the newsroom. Imagine you are a producer of a television newscast, and finally here is a story extolling the virtues of primetime TV using a program that is infamous for its casual attitudes toward sexuality. Or a busy newspaper reporter; wouldn’t you simply scan the three page release and literally jump to the conclusion in the last paragraph, then file the story from there?

So the next time you pick up your morning paper or turn on the television and hear about the latest research that flies in the face of reason, take the time to look into it a little deeper. You may discover the story doesn’t have quite as much bite as it appears.

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About the Reviewer: Rod Gustafson

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