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Myth of the Fair-Haired Warrior Princess: lesson in science journalism ethics

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Questions about journalism ethics, fabricating quotes, distortion of science – all wrapped up in one story in The Sunday Times of London. A couple of weeks ago Christina Jewett of the California Watch /Center for Investigative Reporting wrote about this, and now Craig Silverman has addressed it in his “Regret the Error” column on the Columbia Journalism Review site.

Let’s start with Jewett’s account, which I’ve excerpted:

A UC Santa Barbara professor made a small but significant finding in the field of evolutionary psychology a few months ago that escalated into an international sensation over the weekend.

It’s a story that could have ended with an angry mob of blond women chasing him with pitchforks. “I haven’t had that happen yet,” said the psychologist, Aaron Sell, “but who knows.”

Here’s what did happen.

Sell and a team of researchers embarked on a study to learn more about the nature of anger, submitting a lengthy survey to nearly 300 men and women.

Their findings? Women who consider themselves particularly attractive are quicker to anger, as they tend to have a greater sense of entitlement. Men share that trait with women, and men who report that they are physically strong are also more quick to anger.

The findings were published in the September issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences without overwhelming fanfare.

And then a reporter from the Times of London called Sell seeking to test a theory of whether blondes held an even greater sense of entitlement than brunettes.

Willing to help the reporter, Sell went back to his data and found that no such phenomenon exists. He communicated as much via e-mail, Sell said.

Before the professor gave it another thought, the headline appeared in the Times of London: “Blonde Women Born to Be Warrior Princesses.”

The article suggested that Sell’s researchers had concluded that blondes “exist in a ‘bubble'” and are more likely to “‘go to war'” than women with red, brown or black hair. The reporter John Harlow’s article quoted him:

“We expected blondes to feel more entitled than other young women – this is Southern California, the natural habitat of the privileged blonde,” said Aaron Sell, who led the study which has been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science. “What we did not expect to find was how much more warlike they are than their peers on campus.”

Soon the BBC picked up the story. It got more than 1,200 hits from Twitter. (I confess, I Tweeted the “warlike” finding before calling Sell yesterday.)

The Times’ story left Sell flabbergasted. The quotes were not what he said, and his study made nary a mention of hair color, he said.

Sell and colleagues wrote a strongly worded letter to the Times of London.

“To be clear, I have never published any research about blonde women, nor have I ever conducted any research on blonde women, or about their supposed differences from other women.”

On the Psychology Today site, Satoshi Kanazawa wrote:

In April 2008, I wrote that British journalists interpret “freedom of the press” to mean that they can make up anything they want and publish it as fact in British newspapers. Now another evolutionary psychologist has learned the lesson the hard way.

Molika Ashford wrote about it as well on Stinkyjournalism.org.

Stinky journalism, indeed.

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