Changing the story: A case study of exaggeration in neuroscience reporting

Changing the story: A case study of exaggeration in neuroscience reporting

Author: Natasha Abrahams – Monash University, Australia

This case study analyses print and online global news reporting upon a single neuroscientific study (Hahn et al. 2015) to trace how the messaging changes from the original article, to the press release, to news reporting. Hahn et al.’s (2015) study used functional magnetic resonance imaging to visualise brain structure changes in female-to-male transgender individuals who were administered testosterone. The widespread international news coverage of their study was notable for its embellished claims. Some articles included the claim that women given testosterone experienced a decline in their multi-tasking ability, suggesting that men are less adept at multi-tasking due to their higher levels of testosterone. These news articles erroneously attributed this result to Hahn et al. (2015), who did not examine or speculate on multi-tasking.

Through examining a comprehensive sample of news reporting on Hahn et al.’s (2015) study, I have inferred key points at which the story deviated from that expressed in the study abstract and press release. I argue that two factors underpinned this misleading reporting. Firstly, the news reporting called upon the established gender script that women possess an inborn propensity for multi-tasking. Secondly, unsubstantiated claims proliferated due to a unique globalised news environment in which a small number of articles are reproduced and adapted across many news outlets. Based on my analysis, I make recommendations on responsible news reporting of science relating to sex differences.

The case study sits within my broader doctoral thesis which argues that biological justifications for gender roles in the home are perpetuated by the interplay between scientific literature and popular media.

The author has not yet submitted a copy of the full paper.

Presentation type: Individual paper
Theme: Technology
Area of interest: Investigating science communication practices