Abstaining from journalism

abstinenceSo frequently the mainstream media reduces religion to a litany of moral statements. The only time you can get coverage of religion, it seems, is when these moral views intersect with public policy or politics. But then when there is a major moral issue in the news — be it prostitution, plagiarism or embezzlement — religious understanding is noticeably excluded from the coverage.

Terry already noticed a bit of this with his analysis of a New York Times story on the rates of sexually-transmitted diseases among teenage girls. At least one in four teenage girls has an STD.

I also wanted to look at Lindsey Tanner’s article on the matter for the Associated Press. Her article is also full of ghosts. But I’m highlighting it here also because if you thought the lack of balance in the Times story was problematic, this one is kind of jaw-dropping. Here is the second paragraph:

Some doctors said the numbers might be a reflection of both abstinence-only sex education and teens’ own sense of invulnerabilty. Because some sexually transmitted infections can cause infertility and cancer, U.S. health officials called for better screening, vaccination and prevention.

Ah yes. “Some” doctors say that. How big is this quantity of “some”? That is not important. Nor is it important if or how other people disagree. Or even among those who agree, nowhere is it explained whether the higher rates among certain groups of the population are a result of more abstinence education.

The entire piece advocates against abstinence-only education. A medicine specialist at a New York hospital and a “sex education expert” at a teen Web site called sexetc.org and an OB-GYN in New Orleans speak against it. I guess we found who “some” of these doctors were. The reporter also reached out to find this surprising source to speak out against abstinence-only educaiton:

Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, said the study shows that “the national policy of promoting abstinence-only programs is a $1.5 billion failure, and teenage girls are paying the real price.”

Okay, so now that we’ve stacked the deck with four quotes from opponents of abstinence-only education, let’s see who the AP quotes for the response.

[crickets chirping]

[wind blowing through the trees]

That’s right — Associated Press reporter Lindsey Tanner, whose entire story reads like a Planned Parenthood press release against abstinence education, managed to quote not one single critic of her premise.

That’s just laziness.

The premise of the piece is weak as well. Even if the federal government is using my hard-earned money to give out various grants for sex education — be it abstinence or otherwise — the notion that that is the reason for teen STD rates or pregnancy rates is silly. Even if it has an effect, it would be very difficult and time consuming — mathematically speaking — to gauge this. To run a regression analysis, you would have to see where the funds are going and make sure that you are properly getting a sample of teens who are getting sex education from the allocated funds as well as teens who are getting sex education from non-allocated funds. Then you would have to control for all sorts of other things — quality of instruction, adherence to the message, all sorts of socio-economic data, etc. Reporters aren’t constructing or running these regressions. Even of the studies I’ve seen comparing abstinence education with other sex education, I haven’t seen one that even had access to good data, much less a good way to analyze it.

I’m not surprised that Planned Parenthood is opposed to abstinence-only education. I’m not even surprised that “some” doctors oppose it. But teen sexuality is a much deeper story, one with extremely serious implications.

Why do we never see angles on stories like this that discuss the tremendous physical and psychological damage caused by deviation from the ethic that values sexuality within marriage? Too much moralizing? Too obvious?

Too religious?

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  • http://www.TheEnglishCollection.com Micheal Wynn

    The kids these days are no longer the same twinkly-eyed innocent things that were some half a century ago. If you do not tell them, It is not like they will never get to know. But what they do gather might be questionable. The best bet is to speak to your kids yourself, and not rely on random sources that might as well be pumping total crap into their heads. Nothing beats a one-to-one.

  • Dave

    [...N]owhere is it explained whether the higher rates among certain groups of the population are a result of more abstinence education.

    I believe this is a straw man. Opponents of abstinence-only education attribute to it the general failure of STD rates to reduce, not the detailed variances with demographics.

    Why do we never see angles on stories like this that discuss the tremendous physical and psychological damage caused by deviation from the ethic that values sexuality within marriage? Too much moralizing? Too obvious?

    Too religious?

    Perhaps it’s the fact that that message emanates from thousands of pulpits, and journalists do not feel the need to revisited it.

  • E

    I find it interesting that the vast majority of “sexually transmitted diseases” reported in the study involve HPV.

    Yet I personally know of two cases of women who were discovered to have HPV that was not spread sexually. One had not previously had sexual contact; the other was in a marriage where the woman and her husband had had sexual contact only with each other. I keep on reading that nonsexual spreading of HPV is “very rare,” and the fact that I personally know of two so-called rare exceptions makes me wonder if there’s a lot about HPV that we don’t understand.

    Back to the journalistic issue. I agree fully that much of the reporting about this study was marked by laziness, but the same is true of the many, many stories I see come across the wire every day about medical studies. The fact that A is true and B is true doesn’t mean that A caused B, but way, way too much reporting about medical studies assumes that it does. I just don’t see much critical thinking being done by journalists in coverage of medical issues, period.

  • http://optimus-stoo.livejournal.com stoo

    we never see angles on stories like this that discuss the tremendous physical and psychological damage caused by deviation from the ethic that values sexuality within marriage?

    Because not everyone thinks that “deviation from the ethic that values sexuality within marriage” causes damage? Why is the press obliged to take your beliefs as a fact?

  • FW Ken

    Whenever I read “some people believe”, “some people disagree”, or whatever, my first thought is always “besides the reporter and (perhaps) his/her editor, who would the ‘some’ entail?” That’s true in all reporting, print and broadcast, conservative and liberal, that I hear. It strikes me as a profoundly dishonest way of advocating, rather than reporting.

    And, of course, reporting honestly on teen sex would entail asking embarrassing questions, such as
    1.) what impact has a generation of sex education had on rates?
    2.) what impact has news media presentation of sex had on rates?
    3.) what impact has entertainment presentation of sexuality had on rates? Related question: what would be the impact on advertising rates if a different presentation of sexual mores were made?

    Do reporters really want to ask all of those questions?

  • Martha

    It’s great to know the answer to the problem of early teenage sexual activity and the transmission of disease is so simple – do away with abstinence education et voila! no more pregnancy, STDs, or emotional wreckage! Just happy, fornicating in a healthy manner, 14 year olds!

  • Jerry

    Mollie, I think FW Ken’s questions are more apt than yours. I do agree that “some” is bad journalism. What would have been good is to highlight studies which show how well various forms of sex education actually work. I’ve not seen actual statistically valid studies but maybe they exist. The results might also not be clearcut. I’d want to see results indicating how effect abstinence education was at stopping intercourse, preventing STDs, reducing the abortion rate etc. They might or might not go in lockstep. Maybe more kids avoid sex but those that have sex are not as well protected so the disease/abortion rates are higher. More knowledge is really needed here.

  • Martha

    I agree there, Jerry. More knowledge is definitely needed. How many “abstinence only” courses versus “condoms/caps/sponges/pills” courses are being taught in schools? Are all “absintence only” courses the same, or do some deal with the topics of contraception and disease?

    In this survey, how many of the girls had only received “abstinence only” education? What is the infection rate for boys – let’s face it, if the girls are having sex with boys, then the rate of infection in boys is just as important. Is it a case that the boys don’t want to use condoms?

    Quoting four reactions (and Planned Parenthood among them) that this survey proves “absintence only” education is a failure and worse than that, is driving up the rates of STDs, is sloppy to say the least and biased to say the worst.

  • TK

    Thanks for highlighting this article! I read this article several times this week, researched it a bit, discussed it at my workplace and in our home. The lack of detailed information in the article, both pro and con, was striking and disappointing. Equally lacking was the recommendations of what these experts she quoted think WOULD work, since they were so willing to go on the record for what they think is to blame. Also, the religious undertone is unmistakable to me. Abstinence education is closely tied to religious instruction.

    This article, as it stands, is an opinion piece dressed as an investigative piece. I think it is irresponsible for anyone to write a piece on such an important topic without identifying known methods that would work to keep girls from getting STD’s.

    Interestingly, my own local paper (hardly a bastion of balanced reporting) ran a companion piece, At a glance: STDS and symptoms, which featured this bit of wisdom, “STDs can be prevented by abstinence and condoms.” Kind of ironic advice since the feature article condemned abstinence education as a failure.

  • Dave

    TK writes:

    [...M]y own local paper [...] ran a companion piece [...] which featured this bit of wisdom, “STDs can be prevented by abstinence and condoms.” Kind of ironic advice since the feature article condemned abstinence education as a failure.

    There’s a big difference in the efficacy of abstinence per se and of abstinence-only education. Opponents’ basic point is that the latter evidently does not lead to the former.

  • Eli

    Why do we never see angles on stories like this that discuss the tremendous physical and psychological damage caused by deviation from the ethic that values sexuality within marriage? Too much moralizing? Too obvious?

    Too religious?

    This is a brilliant line of questioning for the media to explore. I would challenge stoo’s contention that this really is a debatable point at all and the sort of opinion which folks can simply agree or disagree about. An ethic of sex which treats it as a hobby or as simply “fun” would have to ignore the natural results of sex both good and bad (children, STDs, potential for emotional vacuity and extreme existential angst, etc.) Without going all moralistic or religious, although perhaps borderline “Captain Obvious”, it seems to me that sexuality outside of marriage is pretty dangerous territory, as it could equally be within marriage if the sanctity of the institution isn’t respected. Then again, there’s always sex that’s just plain fun.

  • steve

    The kids these days are no longer the same twinkly-eyed innocent things that were some half a century ago.

    Everyone who believes this needs a remedial american history course.

    But this “The best bet is to speak to your kids yourself, and not rely on random sources that might as well be pumping total crap into their heads. Nothing beats a one-to-one.” is right on the money.

    That said, the perfect media story on any religious topic has yet to be written. As in any occupation, from rocket scientist to brain surgion to garbage collector, some reporters, including God-Beat reporters, do it better than others. But it’s much easier to criticize reporters (especially religion reporters) than rocket scientists because many religious folk believe that simply going to church makes them qualified to critique all those who report about religion.
    If you think it’s easy, try it. In public. I have and do. And as the GR bloggers will attest, it’s not easy at all. And no matter how much you research a topic, nomatter how well you write the story or column, at least half your readers will find fault. It goes with the territory.

  • http://www.ecben.net Will

    And my lady insisted to me that contracting HPV in delivery rooms is very common. Somebody is “saying the thing that is not”.

  • Chris Bolinger

    [crickets chirping]

    [wind blowing through the trees]

    Mollie, thanks for my first LOL moment of the day! :-)


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