News media subtly influences attitudes about gender differences


New Haven, Conn. -- For people who say they never believe what they read in the newspapers, a Yale researcher found the reality is something different.

In two studies published in the journal Psychological Science, Yale Ph.D. candidate Victoria Brescoll and Marianne LaFrance, a professor of psychology at Yale, found that political ideology influences how the popular press reports research findings. The second study showed that readers beliefs and attitudes are affected by what they read in the newspaper.

"The fact that politics may influence science reporting is somewhat unsettling," Brescoll and LaFrance said. "More to the point, when people read articles about science, they trust the information more precisely because they are reading about science."

The goal of the first study was to determine how newspapers report scientific studies about differences based on gender -- specifically whether they say the finding supports the idea that men and women are biologically different, or whether they say the difference is due to social experience.

LaFrance and Brescoll looked at a representative sample of the top 50 newspapers in the country, based on circulation, for articles reporting a scientific finding of a difference in responses between men and women. They then assessed how each newspaper reported the cause of the difference. Their measures included the newspaper's political stance, based on who they endorsed in presidential elections, and on their attitudes toward gender, based on their position on admitting women to military institutes. According to the study, newspapers that tended to be more politically conservative also tended to report a biological basis for differences between men and women.

In the second study the researchers drafted fictional news stories about gender differences on a gender neutral topic, identifying plants. Some of the stories said men or women were better at identifying plants because of their natural abilities, while others said men or women were more skilled at identifying plants because of how they were socialized. The readers tended to believe whatever bias was represented in the fictional news story.

"What this told us is that when people read newspaper explanations for sex differences, they may accept the explanations as scientifically true rather than understand the explanations provided by the newspaper stem from its political stance," LaFrance said.

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Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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