“The media loves to sensationalize research” on same-sex sexual behavior among animals, according to an analysis published this week in the journal Nature.
A pair of biologists from Australia and the UK surveyed 48 newspaper, magazine, and online articles written about 11 scientific papers on the subject, and concluded that journalists have a tendency to produce tawdry coverage that is inaccurate and can feed negative stereotypes about homosexuality. According to their report:
Evolutionary biologists and neuroscientists are often interested in variations in animal sexual behaviour — and particularly relationships between animals of the same sex. How did such traits evolve, and what are their functions and biological bases? Although worthwhile, such research can fuel some of the most licentious scientific reporting in both the mainstream media and specialized publications — titillating prose that wildly misinterprets the research and its implications for human behaviour.
The most startling example of the harm that such coverage can do relates to a paper published in 2007, which hypothesized that homosexual activity among rams might be explained by an alteration of estrogen receptors in the brain. The research led to a lot of salacious (albeit clever) headlines, like “Brokeback Mutton.” But the worst offense was an article in The Sunday Times of London, which incorrectly asserted that the scientists behind it were trying to “cure” homosexuality in rams, and that their work “could pave the way for breeding out homosexuality in humans.” Consequently, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) launched a campaign to stop the research and the scientists were unfairly pilloried in the media. The newspaper eventually printed a correction, admitting that it had “misconstrued this experiment,” but as The New York Times reported, “The story of the gay sheep became a textbook example of the distortion and vituperation that can result when science meets the global news cycle.”
Other examples of sensational reporting presented in this week’s analysis are less convincing, although the paper only provided specific citations for a small fraction of the 48 articles that were reviewed.