You might have heard that millennials don’t have sex as much as older generations.
You might even have heard a friend going through a bit of a drought joke bitterly, “I guess I must be a millennial.”
This research finding about young(ish) people’s sex lives has been all over the Irish media recently.
For example. the Independent ran an article under the headline “Why millennials stopped having sex”, the Examiner’s article was “Millennials have less sex than older generations had”, the Journal’s headline was “Tinder shminder: millennials are actually having less sex than at any point since the 1930s”, and the Irish Times had “New research suggests young people are going off sex”.
You might have assumed, based on the headlines, that these articles were about Irish millennials. You’d have been wrong.
If you read through the headline, subhead, dateline, and first paragraph (the Journal) — or headline, subhead, byline/dateline, image, image credit, an ad and five paragraphs (the Indo) — you would have learned that this information came from research on American millennials.
This is not unusual: Irish news sources regularly run articles that rely on research conducted in other countries, and downplay this fact, probably because potential readers are more likely to click if they think the research is relevant to their lives.
But the research isn’t always relevant to Irish readers’ lives.
American Millennials, Irish News
“Our study relied on the General Social Survey, which samples U.S. residents only,” Jean Twenge, told me by email.
She’s the lead author of an article in the Archives of Sexual Behaviour with a long title that begins, “Sexual inactivity during young adulthood is more common among US millennials …” All four of the news articles above cite Twenge’s work as a source.
So does this research that got so much attention in the Irish media last week tell us anything about Irish millennials?
“Cultural changes that affect one nation often appear in other nations as well, but without data from each country we cannot say for sure what the change would look like elsewhere,” Twenge said.
I take that to mean that she doesn’t really know: it might be relevant in Ireland, and it might not. Someone would need to do some research here.
Why Does It Matter?
We read in our papers about the war in Syria, the Olympics in Rio, the war on drugs in the Philippines. Why shouldn’t we read about research on American millennials’ sex lives?
There’s no reason we shouldn’t. And perhaps if you’re heading to the States, you might want to read up and find out what are odds are of getting laid while you’re over there — and how to improve them by choosing your potential partner(s) from the right generation.
But all of the articles I mentioned above were presented in ways that I found misleading, making me think that they would tell me something about either Irish millennials, or all millennials in the world. They didn’t: they told me only about American millennials.
News should be presented in a way that is fair, accurate, and informative. To do that, it’s usually important to say where that news originates.
To illustrate, let’s take a more serious case. What if this article in this US publication were headlined “Deadly anthrax outbreak” rather than “Siberia’s deadly anthrax outbreak”?
It would probably get more clicks from US readers, but it could also create the mistaken impression among headline scanners and Twitter scrollers that there was an anthrax outbreak there.
Different Types of Research
Some fields of research yield findings that can easily cross borders, while others are more problematic.
Results of physics experiments conducted in China are just as valid in Dublin as they are in Beijing. Chemistry and metallurgy should be safe too, among other fields. But when you get into the social sciences and health sciences things get tricky.
Aside from the survey on American millennnials, take for example this article in the Journal headlined, “A heavy waiter could make you order extra food”. It appears the study was based on research in America, which has a different relationship to weight than Ireland does.
Or take this Examiner article: “Homelessness dramatically accelerates the aging process by decades”. It’s based on a study of 350 homeless people in California. Is being homeless in Ireland as tough on the body as being homeless in Oakland is? Or more?
What about this Examiner article, “Brain tumours more likely in highly-educated”? Turns out it’s based on research on Swedes. Maybe highly educated Swedes have different habits and different genetic predispositions to brain tumours than highly educated Irish people.
Why couldn’t these headlines have read: “Heavy waiters make Americans order extra food”, “In California, homelessness dramatically accelerates the aging process”, or “Brain tumours more likely in highly-educated Swedes”?
Probably because fewer of us would have clicked on those headlines to read further, thinking them less relevant to our lives in Ireland.
Out of Context
Simple, striking facts make good headlines.
And that creates a tension between good science, which is nuanced, and journalists covering science, who are often looking to simplify and sex-up the results to interest as many of their readers as possible in them.
“It is easier to report on results as ‘hard truths’ of scientific discovery when those results are taken out of context,” Padraig Murphy, a lecturer in communications at Dublin City University, and chair of the MSc in science communication there, told me by email.
“Contextual background – such as cultural variances, probability and risk, repeatability of a study, dosage or exposure levels, information on funders of the research – are rarely covered in journalistic reporting of a breakthrough or an innovation.”
Science journalists, many of whom do not have science backgrounds, are working on tight deadlines to make complicated studies more accessible and “assertive”, Murphy says. And they do that, but at the expense of nuance and context.
“‘Millennials are not having sex because of porn, technology and debt’ is a catchier way of saying ‘There is a higher probability that 17-25 year old male and females in X part of US will not engage in sex due to pressures such as debt and online habits, but the survey on which these preliminary findings are based will need to be replicated in other parts of the world and coded for gender, culture, political and socio-economic factors,” Murphy said.
Irish News, Outsourced
I tried to reach out to the journalists who wrote the articles in the Indo, Examiner, Journal and Irish Times and ask them why they chose to cover the results of this research, and how they decided how to go about it. It wasn’t easy, though, as two or three of these articles weren’t made locally.
The Indo’s article was bylined Siobhan Fenton. She’s apparently health and social affairs correspondent at the UK Independent, and the article ran there first, before coming to the Indo through the “Independent News Service”.
I’m not sure if she wrote her own headline, but I would have wanted to ask her about it, because the study does not say that millennials have “stopped having sex”. Unfortunately, Fenton did not reply to my two emails.
The Examiner’s article was bylined Lisa Rapaport. She’s a freelance journalist based in New York, and her article apparently ran on the Reuters newswire, from which the Examiner could have picked it up. She was writing in the US, about US research.
The Journal’s article lists the author as Agence France Presse, another newswire. I couldn’t figure out who wrote it or where.
The Irish Times article, however, was written locally, by the paper’s science editor, Dick Ahlstrom.
Ahlstrom told me by email that the Irish Times used to put Irish research in the one section, and non-Irish research in another.
“Re: US research, in the past home news took only Irish research and non-Irish went to foreign pages. but in these changed days of online journalism this has blurred and home desk will happily take them because they have an immediate placement on the web and often a matching one in print,” he told me by email.
“These stories are now much more likely to reach media outlets as everyone is looking for clickbait. I was only talking to a colleague a few minutes ago about how the BMJ and Lancet are way more likely to run research reports that don’t measure up to scrutiny. Real research but overblown conclusions. Other trusted sources are also doing this so every other story is a light one that makes good video,” he said.
Ahlstrom said he thought the reference he put in his article to the researcher’s university would have tipped off readers about the origin of the research. Indeed, the article includes the line “… Prof Jean Twenge of San Diego State University, who led a survey of 26,700 people in the US …”.
But that was after the headline, the dateline, the byline, the photo, the caption, and the first two paragraphs of the article. What percentage of readers would have got that far?
And the article does not address the question of whether the research tells us anything about the habits of Irish millennials.
Like all these other publications, Dublin Inquirer has relied on research conducted abroad, when reporting for Irish readers. (Although we’ve not based an entire article on such research.)
Last week’s online edition included an article headlined “Who picks up the bill these days?” by city reporter Conal Thomas. In the article, Thomas looked at whether there’s sexism in who is presented the restaurant bill in Dublin when a mixed-sex couple dines out, and whether it matters.
Thomas talked to Matthew Hammond, a post-doctoral scholar in social psychology at the University of Illinois about what Hammond called “benevolent sexism”. So why didn’t Thomas find an Irish scholar to talk to, since the article was about casual sexism in Ireland?
“I had intended, by all means, to contact people in Dublin,” Thomas told me by email. But he wasn’t able to get responses from them, perhaps because they were on their summer holidays. And his deadline was looming.
Since sexism isn’t just an Irish thing, he decided it’d be pretty safe to reach out to academics in other countries. And if you’re searching the English-language internet, most research out there originates in the United States.
In the end, what he was looking for was “a voice who has an idea of what they’re talking about, who has researched broadly within this field, rather than an Irish voice who might not offer as much insight”, Thomas said, and one who’s available when you need them.
And that’s how he found Hammond.