Once again, some news media can’t resist lure of sexy-but-preliminary research

Joy Victory is deputy managing editor of HealthNewsReview.org. She tweets as @thejoyvictory.

“If you feel your sex drive taking a nosedive in the dreary winter months, just buy some really, really bright light bulbs, screw them in, and sit under them for half an hour.”

That’s Maxim’s awful advice to readers in a news piece headlined “Want to be better at sex? Just turn on the lights.”

It was one of many cringe-worthy headlines this week written about a small, unpublished study out of Italy that examined if the use of light boxes–such as the kind used to ease seasonal affective disorder–can help men who have low sexual desire.

When life gets in the way of love

It’s a typical pattern we see in which preliminary research on a sexy but-not-ready-for-primetime topic gets oodles of news media coverage. Green coffee beans. Chocolate. Red wine. Women’s underclothes. Anything to do with sex.

These stories’ enticing headlines may improve click-through rates over the short-term, but they’re unlikely to keep readers in the long run, especially considering the superficial level of reporting these studies often receive.

Quotes taken verbatim from the news release

For example, many of the news stories on this new study simply rehashed the news release, right down to using the same canned quotes provided at the end of the release. We first noticed this problem in our full review of Reuters’ story we published earlier this week.

Attribution was often not noted, making it seem like the reporters interviewed these sources. This was the case for Maxim, the Huffington Post, The UK Telegraph, WebMD, the Los Angeles Times, and BBC, among others, which all had spookily similar quotes from the lead researcher.

Only one of the dozen or so we read–HealthDay’stook time to interview an independent expert and also included quotes from the lead researcher that appeared to be unique. (And Popular Science did at least acknowledge the quotes came from the news release.)

Little scrutiny of the evidence

Wisely, the news release, from the European College of Neuropsychopharmacology, included cautionary statements from the researchers about both the research’s significance, and possible harms of light-box therapy:

“We’re not yet at the stage where we can recommend this as a clinical treatment. Even at that stage, there will be a few patients — for example those with an eye condition or anyone taking medicines which affect light sensitivity (some antidepressants, and some antibiotics, for example) — who would need to take special care. However if this treatment can be shown to work in a larger study, then light therapy may offer a way forward. It’s a small study, so for the moment we need to treat it with appropriate caution.”

While the news stories seemed happy to parrot the positive statements from the researchers, negative or critical statements were less frequent. Few mentioned these harms (though a couple did, such as Huff Po and LA Times). Nor did we see any stories provide an explanation that put the findings in context.

Instead we were given details like the men’s testosterone levels before and after treatment–yet we don’t know if those changes really mean anything or not, since we weren’t told what was low, normal or even high under baseline conditions among men happy with their libidos.

And the stories often jumped to misleading, clickbait-worthy conclusions, declaring that this short, small, unpublished study proves light is all it takes to boost sexual desire or, as many erroneously stated, “have better sex.”

Red hot topic? Don’t get burned 

It’s the kind of study that could come back to haunt reporters who covered it so uncritically. After all, we’ve seen it happen before.

That green coffee bean story we linked to earlier? Turns out it was bogus.

And the chocolate story? Pilloried by John Oliver on his HBO show.

We have no idea if this will be the case for this study–it very well may shine a light on an effective solution, which future research will better bear out. In the meantime, that doesn’t mean the journalism shouldn’t also be illuminating.

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cella blue

September 27, 2016 at 6:44 pm

Great research and well written article. Too often now, anybody can be a journalist and fact-checking is a thing of the past. Bravo to you for bringing this issue to light!