Spinning Facebook and Student Grades

A while back The Sunday Times got wind of a poster to be presented at a meeting by a researcher from Ohio State University. OSU posted an embargoed press release to Eurekalert and Newswise, but the Sunday Times, apparently never received that press release. Regardless, the paper put together a story with an incredible spin that ran on the Sunday before the meeting. The research poster was about Facebook and student diligence, you may have seen it in the news…

All hell broke loose as one after another a new sensationalist article about the research blamed Facebook for declining student grades and failed exams across the board. It seems that many outlets simply modified the original Sunday Times piece, which gave those stories a double spin. It caused outrage at OSU and in the media.

OSU’s assistant VP for Research Communications, Earle Holland, discussed the debacle in the summer issue of ScienceWriters, the NASW’s member magazine and slated the media for sensationalising and for mistaking correlation and causation in the runaway coverage that ensued.

Holland says in his article that the press release described only a small pilot study that looked at Facebook use among students and simply asked them about how much studying they did, and their grades. He adds that “it looked for any correlation between Facebook use and GPAs [grades], but suggested no causation.” Moreover, the study looked at a very small sample of students. It didn’t prove what the media headlines had suggested.

According to a report in the Columbia Journalism Review: “The entire episode offers a good lesson in the inherent risks of reporters’ cavalierly covering the social sciences, as well as the risks that young researchers can face in dealing with the news media.” The comments following that page are quite intriguing too.

I originally started this post with the intention of taking an opposing view. After all, surely any news is better than no news? But, before I sent the post to the blog queue, I emailed Earle to ask for his side of the story directly and he told me that, “our attention is focused on more than trying to sneak ways to get news coverage. We get tons of coverage and, as the largest research university in the US, don’t have to think up ways to finagle exposure.”

He added that, “We report on research emerging from most of the more than 100 academic departments on campus comprising more than 4,000 investigators and we’re highly selective about which projects we cover. First and foremost, they have to have undergone some peer review – in this case, publication in a reputable journal or selection for presentation at a major national meeting. Secondly, the research has to be both translateable and be interesting to a general reader/viewer/listener. Both criteria have to be met for us to do a story.”

That’s a fair and solid response and dispels the concerns I raised in my draft post written on a whim. It seems that the initial spin by the Sunday Times story which did not report the actual preliminary results in the original research poster got totally out of hand as these rather topical subjects – Facebook and student grades – collided.

And, before you ask, no, there were no threats to send around the Ohio heavies. However, given that OSU is the biggest research university in the States, I guess they could have done just that and the subsequent story and Youtube clip of my physical demise would have been even bigger than a small research project blown out of all proportion in the name of churnalism.