Torygraph returns to business as usual

Lest we get too carried away by admiration of the Daily Telegraph‘s role in exposing the hypocrisy and corruption of MPs, it’s worth consulting Ben Goldacre’s column in today’s Guardian.

He focussed on a report in the Torygraph which appeared under the headline “Women who dress provocatively more likely to be raped, claim scientists”. The report begins:

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.

Ben phoned Sophia Shaw to see if the story was an accurate account of her research. She told him that

every single one of the first four statements made by the Telegraph was an unambiguous, incorrect, misrepresentation of her findings.

Women who drink alcohol, wear short skirts and are outgoing are more likely to be raped? “This is completely inaccurate,” Shaw said. “We found no difference whatsoever. The alcohol thing is also completely wrong: if anything, we found that men reported they were willing to go further with women who are completely sober.”

And what about the Telegraph’s next claim, or rather, the paper’s reassuringly objective assertion, that it is scientists who claim that women who dress provocatively are more likely to be raped?

“We have found that people will go slightly further with women who are provocatively dressed, but this result is not statistically significant. Basically you can’t say that’s an effect, it could easily be the play of chance. I told the journalist it isn’t one of our main findings, you can’t say that. It’s not significant, which is why we’re not reporting it in our main analysis.”

Ms Shaw went on to say:

“When I saw the article my heart sank, and it made me really angry, given how sensitive this subject is. To be making claims like the Telegraph did, in my name, places all the blame on women, which is not what we were doing at all. I just felt really angry about how wrong they’d got this study.”

Ben reports that since he started sniffing around, and Shaw complained, the Telegraph has changed the online copy of the article. But “there has been no formal correction, and in any case, it remains inaccurate”.

Now… Of course this is the kind of thing that happens every day in much of the mainstream media, so we’re rather resigned to it — especially in reporting any aspect of scientific or scholarly work. But it’s conveniently overlooked by many of the most vociferous print-based critics of online news, who are forever asking rhetorical questions about how much fact-checking is done by pyjama-clad bloggers. Actually, in this particular case, a blogged account as factually inaccurate as this Torygraph story would have been picked up and demolished within minutes in the blogosphere. So let’s have less cant from the processed-woodpulp brigade about the intrinsic superiority of their trade.

Footnote: The byline under the Torygraph report is that of Richard Alleyne, who is billed as the newspaper’s “Science Correspondent”. According to the Press Gazette, he’s been in post since Roger Highfield left in October 2008 to become Editor of New Scientist. Before that, Alleyne was a general news reporter. Maybe he should be sent on a course to develop his listening skills.