How Caveats Evaporate: Facebook Study Offers a Cautionary Tale

22 08 2009

Ohio State research communicator Earle Holland has written an insightful account in the online Columbia Journalism Review recounting media misrepresentation of a pilot study by an OSU graduate student that showed a link between Facebook usage and lower grades.

The basic problem was that, while the study found only a correlation between the two, The Sunday Times of London published a story declaring a causative link, saying that “the website is damaging students’ academic performance.” This erroneous report set the tone for much subsequent inaccurate coverage.

OSU did everything right in issuing the news release. It quotes the researcher up front saying that “We can’t say that use of Facebook leads to lower grades and less studying–but we did find a relationship.”

And further down in the news release: “There may be other factors involved, such as personality traits, that link Facebook use and lower grades,” she said. . . . “It may be that if it wasn’t for Facebook, some students would still find other ways to avoid studying, and would still get lower grades.  But perhaps the lower GPAs could actually be because students are spending too much time socializing online.”

While the reporters who confused correlation and causation are the obvious culprits in the miscommunication, some people criticized the university news office for issuing a news release on such a preliminary study. But that criticism misses an important point: that the poster session was at a meeting of a major scientific society. And since the study was on a hot topic–social media–it was likely to be noticed by reporters and stories written anyway.

So, the most responsible course of action by the news office was to prepare a carefully written news release that got the facts straight, put them in context, and protected the researcher against claims of misrepresentation.

One clear lesson here is that when in doubt, the best course is to produce a news release on a piece of research that clearly explains the findings and spells out caveats. A second lesson is to assume that those caveats may well be ignored, so you and your public information officer should carefully monitor coverage to respond to inaccuracies.

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