Tuesday, 11 October 2011

No Grazie, Grazia

A few weeks ago Dr Petra (@DrPetra) highlighted a story that was doing the rounds in the national press about 'bossy women have less sex'... Google it under news and you will see the stories from around the globe (see here, safe to click). The story was formulated from a piece of research carried out with Sub-Saharan African Women, (freely available for all to read here)

This extract is taken from the abstract of the research article, 'Understanding how women’s position in the household influences their sexual activity may be an essential piece in protecting the sexual rights of women and helping them to achieve a sexual life that is both safe and pleasurable.'

This weekend I picked up a copy of Grazia Magazine and found this story -



I tweeted it because I was frustrated, I tweeted it at Grazia and Dr Petra. I was frustrated that a magazine, marketed at women, that aims to go beyond regurgitating the usual trashy gossip that other magazines print, found it appropriate to include a 'debate' about this headline, which should never have been a headline. Another case of misrepresented research.

Others offered their support and said they were disappointed also. I sent an email to Grazia saying why I thought this story was inappropriate and that they could have done a much better job by covering the fact that the mainstream press thought it was appropriate to change this study about empowerment in women in Sub-Saharan Africa into a story about 'bossy women having less sex'.

The response from Grazia:

JaneGRAZIA @hapsci Sorry you feel that way, but that certainly wasn't our intention

DrPetra @ Tbh @janeGRAZIA unsure saying 'it wasn't our intention' to misrepresent research on African women's empowerment is good enough @hapsci

DrPetra @ Was it that writers didn't read this research http://bit.ly/r2gQPO or read it+ decided to misrepresent it?Both worrying @hapsci @janeGRAZIA

DrPetra @ A better approach=reflect on why folk upset with column+commit to reporting research more accurately AND entertainingly @hapsci @janeGRAZIA

JaneGRAZIA @DrPetra @hapsci It was a huge story in national press we were debating - not original research

JaneGRAZIA @ @marykmac @hapsci Hard not to react with frustration when accused of misogyny, and for that I apologise. We do take your comments on board

I wrote this blog post because I wanted to share this story with my friends away from Twitter and get their response about a magazine I know they read - what do you think?


UPDATE 12.10.11

Response from DrPetra

Thanks for writing this @hapsci. While Grazia's coverage wasn't the only problematic piece in this whole sorry media saga (which managed to completely twist a piece of research into suggesting the opposite of its actual findings), it is a good illustration of how the media relies on other press coverage rather than original research papers to inform stories. As such it's a great case study for teaching both journalism and science communication students/practitioners.


I may be wrong but it seems Grazia had not read the original research at all and probably had no idea about what it was really about. Again that's not unusual as often journalists misunderstand papers. In this case the research was freely available and easy to track down. The press release was also easily accessible. It would have taken a bit longer to find the original study and report it than it would have taken to simply do churnalism with existing press coverage, but that would have made for a lot more interesting piece. I'd be interested to hear from Grazia (and other journalists who covered this story) about why they did not do this? Or why they felt talking about the press coverage rather than the research itself was adequate?

Following the discussion on Twitter Grazia asked for people to get in touch. For the purposes of transparency here's the message I sent them:

"Following the discussions about the 'bossy women have less sex' here's a few resources that may be of use to you if you plan on taking this story further.

The original study (open access) is free to view here: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00224499.2011.554918

and the press release that went with it here: http://www.jhsph.edu/publichealthnews/press_releases/2011/hindin_sexual_autonomy.html

As you can see neither of these go with the 'bossy woman' angle. In fact what the study set out to do was see how much autonomy women had within their lives and from that looked at sexual activity. They found that women who have more say over what happens elsewhere in their lives are less likely to be coerced into unwanted sexual behaviour. So rather than it being a case of 'bossy women having less sex', the study found that women who have control over their lives have more equal relationships. This is important as equality in relationships translates to more pleasurable sex for women and their partners. It's also very important given the context of this study was Sub Saharan Africa where there can be problems of gender equality and where coercive sex can be a problem. As talking about sex is often taboo, having a way to discuss relationships based on women's wider autonomy in the home could be a helpful means to uncover problems of coercion/violence but also be a way of looking at achieving gender equality and empowering women more widely.

When this research hit the headlines it got respun into 'bossy women have less sex' (summarised here by The Media Blog http://themediablog.typepad.com/the-media-blog/2011/09/daily-mail-issues-sex-warning-to-bossy-women.html). It's not clear why this happened, or where this angle originally came from. But if you compare this coverage to the original paper it's not just a case of getting the science a little bit wrong, it's an entire rewrite of the findings to basically advocate for the opposite position that the research is coming from. Resulting in reporting of this research that airbrushed out African women entirely while repackaging a study about women's agency into a stick to beat UK women with - for being both opinionated and withholding sex. A study that was looking at avoiding coercive sexual practices was transformed into coverage that implied saying when you don't (or do) want sex is a bad thing.

At the time of this reporting people were complaining about how badly the research had been covered, but it didn't stop it being picked up in other media outlets (including your own) in ways that rehearsed or added to the myth of the 'bossy women have less sex' account. Which is why there has been some vocal criticism about the coverage in Grazia.

I'm really glad you're taking time to reflect on this particular case and hope it can be something that could be used in future. Perhaps either as a timely warning that a research report in mainstream media always needs checking at source, or if you wanted to revisit the study to write up what was found (and perhaps interview the researchers who did the study), or to use the main outcomes from the study to discuss how women who have greater autonomy may enjoy more pleasurable sex lives - and how that might be achieved. UK women also can struggle in this area so it could become a sex positive piece about enjoying greater intimacy without rehearsing the usual misinformation about great sex being measured simply on how often you do it. I'd be happy to help out if you wanted to take this forward at all. And if you are writing about research in future and aren't sure about a study (or can't find an original paper) please do ask as if I can't help interpret it I'll usually know someone who can. Most academics working in this area want to help as much as we can to ensure interesting research hits the headlines in fun and empowering ways (that are also accurate)".

They've replied thanking me for my response and restating they were debating the coverage of the story as it appeared in the press, but they'd discuss it at their next meeting and as they're always looking for people to help with features would I be willing to provide quotes for future pieces. I've replied saying this is fine as I'm always happy to help journalists where I can.

In my experience with other cases like this journalists often seek to placate critics by seeming like they'll improve future pieces, but usually are just hoping the pesky scientists will go away and have no intention to alter practice. Time will tell if Grazia truly intends to sort out content and use original research to create fantastic coverage. I hope they do, and I'd be interested in hearing from them or any other journalist who could reflect on what happened here and how this could be moved forward positively.

Disclaimer: I wrote an advice column for Grazia for a while after launch and helped with content ideas for the early issues. More recently I've provided quotes for features.

6 comments:

  1. I tweeted them to say I look forward to their feature on women's empowerment in subsaharan Africa and the fund they are setting up to help further the cause.... I won't hold my breath though.

    Personal agency is SO IMPORTANT in development, especially for women, and Grazia makes a mockery of every article it has ever written in support of improving women's wellbeing in the UK and internationally.

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  2. @sparklyredshoes11 October 2011 03:50

    I've got a copy of the mag here - sent my views to @janeGRAZIA on Twitter, here's a quick paraphrase of what I sent:

    (In response to @JaneGRAZIA's tweets "@DrPetra @hapsci It was a huge story in national press we were debating - not original research" and "@marykmac @hapsci Hard not to react with frustration when accused of misogyny, and for that I apologise. We do take your comments on board")

    My response:

    The article opens with "Last week, a new study claimed…" not "the national press reported…" I'm not buying the explanation that it was the press story they were debating not the original research.

    I didn't perceive misogyny in article, to me it read as "study found this, we're not convinced, discuss."…but the issue is that of course the study *didn't* find that at all. Perhaps a better approach might have been an article that read: "the media reported this, but here's what the study actually found". Ironically, real study results combat patriarchy in Africa. Could be an opportunity for follow up article about press misreporting of science, especially when it comes to women & sex?

    I also mentioned that I'm a subscriber and generally really like their mag.

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  3. It's a shame for lay people who aren't interested in reading the original publication that it has been so badly misinterpreted - another case of you can't believe what you read in the paper! Better luck next time Grazia

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  4. sparklyredshoes11 October 2011 06:10

    Credit where it's due - just got a response from Grazia Editor re. my suggestion of a follow up article about press misreporting of science:

    "@JaneGRAZIA: @sparklyredshoes Good idea - will bring up at next features meeting"

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  5. Great to see that they have responded positively. Shame it took a while to reach that point.

    I do not see why magazines like Grazia do not insist on researching stories correctly. I really feel that good quality research, written up in the correct way would make fantastic stories - and stand out, because it would be different to what others are printed (and sell magazines).

    It doesn't have to be written in a ''scientists'(whoever they are) found this, then this, then this' way. It can be newsworthy, engaging, interesting AND correct. Rather than a regurgitation of what everyone else is writing.

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  6. I find it so frustrating that Grazia open their article with 'Last week a new study claimed that women who wear the trousers at home pay the price in the bedroom'. This is just a gross misrepresentation of the actual findings of the study you have to wonder if anyone actually bothered to read the original paper, or just took the Daily Mail as gospel... worrying to say the least. There has to be an element of accountability from Grazia here, as so many people reading this article will rely upon the magazine to present them with the facts, which they utterly fail to do. There really is no excuse for failing to accurately present the findings of the study, as Heather says it doesn't need to be presented in a 'sciency' way.

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