Disappearing The Science News

By Carl Zimmer | July 10, 2009 12:15 pm

invisibleoffice.jpgI have some hope for a happy coexistence between blogs about science and older forms of media. I don’t think blogs will ever supplant newspapers and magazines, nor I do I think they’re killing them like a parasite destroying its host. In fact, blogs may be able to act as a new kind of quality-control mechanism. I know that not all my colleagues on the old-media side of the divide are so optimistic. You’d be hard-pressed to find a snootier distillation of their scorn than something Independent science editor Steve Connor wrote recently:

The sixth World Conference of Science Journalists is underway in London. I can’t say it’s going to change my life, as I missed out on the previous five, but I did notice that it has attracted the attention of a bunch of medics with strong views on the state of science journalism today.

“A few of us felt they were might [sic] not adequately address some of the key problems in their profession, which has deteriorated to the point where they present a serious danger to public health,” according to the Bad Science website of Dr Ben Goldacre, who is turning into the bête noir of science journalists. The medics met in a pub in London last night to explain why the “mainstream media’s science coverage is broken, misleading, dangerous, lazy, venal and silly”. All three speakers are gainfully employed by the public sector so they don’t actually have to worry too much about the sort of pressures and financial constraints the mainstream media are under. But they nevertheless condescended to offer some advice on the sort of “best practice guidelines” I should be following, for which I suppose I should be eternally grateful.

This morning brought an example of how not to cope with these changes to the media landscape. On June 23 the Daily Telegraph‘s science correspondent Richard Alleyne wrote an article with the headline, “Women who dress provocatively more likely to be raped, claim scientists.”

Goldacre decided to call up the scientist who supposedly made this claim (I thought that’s what reporters do, not just bête noirs). She was furious at the distortion. Goldacre reports his conversation in a July 4 Bad Science post and in his column at the Guardian.

I decided to check out the original article. But I couldn’t find it. If you type in Alleyne and rape into the Telegraph’s search window, you get the story as the top results. Click on the story, and you are delivered to a url that looks promising:


But once you get to that page, all you get to read is, “Sorry, we cannot find the page you are looking for.”

No correction. No clarification. No apology.

I then hunted around on some online news databases–the databases that future generations will turn to to research the news of our time. I can find Richard Alleyne’s stories at the Telegraph from both before and after the rape story. But not the rape story itself.

It has, as far as I can tell, been disappeared.

(I dropped a note to the Telegraph to ask what happened. I even found Richard Alleyne on Twitter and dropped him a note too. No response so far. I will post anything I receive.)

Clearly, the bête noirs are being listened to. And that is good. But pretending that the objects of their ire never existed? Mmm, not so good.

Update: Nepostistic hat tip to brother Ben, Internet archaeologist extraordinaire, who dredged up a copy of the full article on another blog, which compares it to the original press release. Not quite down the memory hole yet!

Update #2, July 22: Goldacre now tells us that on July 13 the Telegraph published a very odd correction:

Owing to an editing error, our report “Women who dress provocatively more likely to be raped, claim scientists” (June 23) wrongly stated that research presented at the recent BPS conference by Sophia Shaw found that women who drink alcohol are more likely to be raped. In fact, the research found the opposite. We apologise for our error. 

Wow. Speaking from my own experience, I can say it’s bad enough to have a newspaper run a correction on an article of mine for a misspelled name or a figure with an extra zero tacked on the end. But turning around the result of a study to its precise opposite–that’s truly embarrassing.

It is good that the Telegraph posted a correction. It’s odd that it took three weeks for them to do so, though–especially since Goldacre nailed them in the Guardian back on July 4, interviewing Sophie Shaw to show how wrong the article was. I have to agree with Goldacre that the correction, as stark as it is, actually only scratches the surface of all that was wrong with the story. At least, I think it does. I can’t actually read the original article on the Telegraph web site. As I blogged pre-swan-ride, the Telegraph had yanked the story, although they hadn’t yanked the title from its search engine results. (Screen grab) Now you can’t even find the title. So now the newspaper has published a correction to a story that, on the Internet at least, no longer exists.

I think that newspapers should not follow this example if they want to thrive in the 21st century. Newspapers will have to find ways to distinguish themselves from other sources of information online. While they may have to set aside some of the traditional defining features (like ink), there are many things that will translate well into the future. One of them is a clear, reliable paper trail. But to preserve that trail, newspapers will have to resist the urge to hit the delete key.

[Image: http://www.flickr.com/photos/carbonnyc/ / CC BY 2.0]


Comments (20)

  1. Chad

    Carl, this is exactly why I tell my parents (who known nothing of science) to not believe a single thing about science they read or hear in the media. Unless, of course, it was written by you.

    Carl: You should check my links, too. Eternal vigilance is the price of online journalism.

  2. Re: Ben unearthing the original – it was only a matter of time. When will disingenuous people learn that you can’t erase history on the Internet?

    Far better to not write drivel in the first place, surely?

  3. Mer

    Reminds me of a similar study we found a few weeks ago: Disco clothing, female sexual motivation, and relationship status: is she dressed to impress? http://www.ncbirofl.com/2009/07/does-this-outfit-make-me-look-like-i.html

  4. Amos Zeeberg (Discover Web Editor)

    This may be a little pedantic, but I’m including the entire original Telegraph article [as re-printed by The Hand Mirror, that blog Ben found] here. Redundancy will keep our data safe[r]!

    Women who dress provocatively more likely to be raped, claim scientists
    The way women dress, how flirtatious they are and their levels of drunkenness really do have an effect on the likelihood of them being raped, claim scientists.

    By Richard Alleyne, Science Correspondent
    Published: 7:00AM BST 23 Jun 2009

    Psychologists found that all three factors had a bearing on how far men were likely to go to take advantage of the opposite sex.

    They found that the skimpier the dress and the more flirtatious the woman, the less likely a suitor was to take no for an answer.

    But, contrary to popular opinion, alcohol consumption did dampen their ardour with many men claiming that they were put off by a woman who was drunk.

    Sophia Shaw at the University of Leicester said that men showed a “surprising” propensity to coerce women into sex, especially those that were considered promiscuous.

    “The research seems to show that men are not so much charming women into bed as coercing them,” she said. “I was quite surprised how far ordinary men were prepared to go.”

    Miss Shaw and her team, who present their results at the Forensic Psychology Annual conference run by the British Psychological Society, recruited 101 men, aged 18 to 70, from their university and local rugby and football clubs.

    First they completed questionnaires regarding their sexual history, personality and aggression to assess how promiscuous they were.

    They were then asked to imagine various scenarios involving them meeting a woman in a nightclub and then eventually leaving with her. For each scenario the woman’s dress, drunkenness, flirtatiousness and previous sexual history were altered.

    Using a sliding scale of sexual coercion from one to 27 where one was being allowed to enter the women’s house to 27 being rape, they assessed how far men would go before “calling it a night”.

    Amazingly many men, especially promiscuous men, admitted they were go to within a point of rape before realising the girl was not interested in sex. That was even though at point 19 she had already said she felt “uncomfortable” and thought things were “going too fast”.

    Of the promiscuous men 35 per cent said they would get to level 24, although only five per cent of inexperienced men said they would do the same.

  5. Is this indeed the original, *original* article? Because Ben Goldacre’s blog said it had been edited since he posted his critique. I’m wondering how many versions of varying offensiveness there are.

  6. After Darwinius I refuse to have anything to do with mainstream media. If bloggers want to contact me for an interview or quote about things that appear ina well-known London-based science magazine… Well, you know where to find me.

  7. That’s *not* the text of the original article. Whilst it’s still pretty bad, the orginal was breathtakingly worse. It began with the lines:

    “Women who dress provocatively more likely to be raped, claim scientists

    ” Women who drink alcohol, wear short skirts and are outgoing are more likely to be raped, claim scientists at the University of Leicester.”

    Sadly you only have my word for it as I didn’t think the Telegraph would actually send the original down the memory hole… :(


  8. Doesn’t ANYONE in the mainstream press know about the Streisand Effect?

  9. pv

    Re: …the mainstream media are under plenty of “pressures and financial constraints” these days…
    Mainstream media reporting of things scientific or medical has be dire for decades, if it has ever been good at all. What was their excuse for fabricating and hyping the MMR vaccination scare? They spent man-years and column acres on that practical joke.
    Really, if they haven’t the resources to cover scientific or health matters properly then they shouldn’t cover them at all and leave that work to those who do have the time and resources. Better that than pretend to do the job, do it dreadfully then complain when they get found out – which is basically what Steve Connor was doing so incompetently when he scribbled his diatribe. What so wonderful about that piece though is that it is such a perfect example of the puffed up, chest thumping, ill-researched drivel published in the name of serious journalism that we have all come to expect and despise.
    Even less fortunately for us, science and medicine aren’t the only fictions masquerading as fact in the press. Politics, economics and sport all come in for the same slipshod “never let the facts spoil a good story” attitude. Serious journalists should be ashamed to be associated with it. But the question is, where are the good journalists?

  10. Seeing both articles is like seeing two entirely different articles. The first is a really lame incitement to the second. Have to wonder about the mindset of that second writer.

  11. mjaybee

    The media are all whores.


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The Loom

A blog about life, past and future. Written by DISCOVER contributing editor and columnist Carl Zimmer.

About Carl Zimmer

Carl Zimmer writes about science regularly for The New York Times and magazines such as DISCOVER, which also hosts his blog, The LoomHe is the author of 12 books, the most recent of which is Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed.


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