FEMFACTS
14 Dec 2018

How tabloids transform research to support stereotypes, not challenge them

Scientific research from a US university took on a very different meaning once it was reinterpreted by a leading Lithuanian news outlet.

Daiva Repeckaite
Daiva Repeckaite NewsMavens, Lithuania
How tabloids transform research to support stereotypes, not challenge them - NewsMavens
Meeting, PixaBay

Even though there is every reason not to take psychology experiments on a small sample of American students as a universal "scientific discovery", Ying Hu, from the University of Texas at Dallas, had her research study quoted by news outlets from Nigeria to Lithuania. During this journey, an important part of her message got "lost in translation", and a Lithuanian daily reported it in a way that supported old and damaging stereotypes.

WHAT’S THE CLAIM?

In November, "Lietuvos Rytas", the largest daily in Lithuania, published an article illustrated with a group of smiling women in underwear. The headline read:

Personality according to body type: scientists have spoken.

The article presents a summary of Ying Hu and her team’s research, addressing her as a “he” -- assuming, apparently, that a scientist would certainly be a man. The article starts by outlining the aim of the research, which was to see whether people form first impressions about others based on their body types. 

In the opening sentences, prejudice can be spotted in the generalizations used in the article:

we immediately form a certain opinion about [a stranger]

overweight models were linked to negative personality traits, such as laziness and carelessness

males and females with body shapes typical for their sex were conceived as having more active personality traits, such as being quarrelsome, extroverted and irritable

In the study, the impressions of the students were recorded -- there was no "we" cited -- and in case someone is sceptical whether 76 American students are equatable with a universal “we”, here’s the conclusion as Lietuvos Rytas understood it:

The researchers claim that the study results are applicable to any culture.”

Given the short attention span and information overload of most of the readership, it is easy to get an impression that stereotypes relating to gender and body shape are universal and natural, and, even better, now reaffirmed by scientific authority. Moreover, the article was illustrated with the picture of a group of young women in their underwear, making a “heart” sign with their fingers.

WHAT ARE THE FACTS?

This is what the university actually published about the research:

“While the study makes a statement about the reliability of these perceived links, the researchers asserted that any connection between body type and personality has not been substantiated. Nevertheless, these presumptions still exist. 'There’s no strong evidence linking body type to personality traits,' [Professor of Cognition and Neuroscience, Dr. Alice] O’Toole said. 'We weren’t looking at that directly here in any way. We’re talking about perceptions.'”

As for the universality of prejudice, the university website reads:

“O’Toole conceded that the inferences are expected to differ across ethnicity, geographic location and possibly the age group of the participants. 'We don’t expect these results mapping body shape and traits would apply in different cultures,' she said.”

This careful wording and clear markers that this is a mapping exercise of people’s prejudice, rather than a study about the universality of the ways people make assumptions, got lost in the Lithuanian version.

Was accuracy lost in translation?

We found it very unlikely that the Lithuanian tabloid’s staff were browsing scientific publications or American universities’ press releases, looking for material for their articles. There had to be an intermediary article that “dumbed down” the research by O’Toole, Hu and their team.

While there are many sources in English summarizing the research, most of them give Hu, the first author in the scientific article, the title of researcher, while the Lithuanian tabloid identifies her as a doctoral candidate. A search for “Ying Hu doctoral” predictably lands in "The Daily Mail". And indeed, the Lietuvos Rytas article is a shortened and further simplified version of the Daily Mail article, which, typically for Lithuanian media, does not mention the original source.

The Daily Mail illustrated their article with headless female bodies in underwear and jeans, and introduced the “we” as a universal subject that does the stereotyping. There are more details about the study methodology in the Daily Mail than in the Lithuanian version. The article opens with “People jump to conclusions about someone's character based on their figure, a new study suggests”, clearly stating that the study is about stereotypes.

As for the universality of the prejudice, the article says: “The authors say that drawing conclusions about personality traits based on body shape is universal, but the exact words chosen likely vary by culture,” claiming that the tendency to stereotype not the exact content of the stereotypes, is universal. The Lithuanian tabloid took their interpretation one step further.

Against the intention of the research team to call for a debate about unconscious bias, the Lithuanian tabloid appears to aim to lend scientific authority to the claim that prejudice against certain body types is natural and unavoidable. The choice of illustrations in both tabloids creates a subconscious link that this is mostly about women -- in the Daily Mail they are additionally dehumanized by the illustration. Despite emerging debate about body shaming, the Lithuanian summary of the Daily Mail article can offer distorted “scientific” backing to bullies and shamers.

In 2016, when I taught at the Institute of Journalism at Vilnius University, my students carried out investigative projects on the issue of uncited translations from foreign tabloids and blogs. Comparing headlines and keywords, they found numerous uncited translations in Lithuanian press, especially on websites of women’s magazines. There appears to be a potentially dangerous ecosystem of news, where exploratory findings, tested on a small number of students, are published online, then further digested and “spiced up” in tabloids, and finally translated for smaller newspapers and websites.

In a fast-paced media environment, celebrity, fashion and even health journalism is taken even less seriously than political reporting. With lifestyle and health topics seen as “soft” and “easy”, editors seem to disregard the principles of ordinary journalism -- critical thinking, looking for the primary source, consulting multiple opinions, and considering the impact of the news (remember the story of the chocolate science hoax?). This uncritical regurgitation of bite-sized science reporting from British tabloids makes the media complicit in boosting people’s insecurities and making them vulnerable to the pressures of the diet industry and even body shamers.

For comparison, we can look at how The Atlantic got an entirely different take-home message from the research and used the findings as a chance to remind and analyze the repressive history of “somotype” research. A simple online search could have led the article’s author to this, or the original source, both of which are nuanced and acknowledge the study’s limitations.

CONCLUSION

In this particular case, we rate the headline in Lietuvos rytas as clickbait which is potentially misleading. Pseudoscience sourced from the Daily Mail in Lithuanian media, never attributing the original source, is an interesting topic in itself. We also consider the distortion of the quote on “universality” to be a misleading manipulation of facts. Both magazines’ choice of illustration of the article, reinforcing that female bodies are those to be judged and “related to character”, we rate as sexual objectification of women.

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