Freedom of the Press vs. The Truth

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Filed under: Media Literacy

Submitted by W.J. Elvin III: British Journalism 101: Don’t let facts stand in the way of a good story…


British Newspapers Make Things Up
by Satoshi Kanazawa
Psychology Today
January 24, 2010

In April 2008, I wrote that British journalists interpret “freedom of the press” to mean that they can make up anything they want and publish it as fact in British newspapers. Now another evolutionary psychologist has learned the lesson the hard way.

In the earlier post, I explain that, by the American standards, all British newspapers are tabloids because they don’t distinguish between what is true and what they make up. I knew this from my own experiences of dealing with British journalists, but, as it turns out, even the British government admits, in an official government publication, that British newspapers make things up and report them as facts.

Most British people consider the Times of London to be the most respectable “broadsheet” newspaper (as opposed to “tabloid” newspapers) in the UK, despite the fact that the Times, along with most British “broadsheet” newspapers, is now published in the tabloid size to make it easier for people to read it in crowded London subways. Last week, the Sunday Times published an article with the headline “Blonde women born to be warrior princesses.” The article reported that “Researchers claim that blondes are more likely to display a “warlike” streak because they attract more attention than other women and are used to getting their own way – the so-called “princess effect.”” The Times article quotes the evolutionary psychologist at the University of California – Santa Barbara, Aaron Sell, and his findings are purportedly published in his article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, written with the two Deans of Modern Evolutionary Psychology, Leda Cosmides and John Tooby.

As it turns out, however, none of this is true, as Sell explains in his angry letter to the Times. He and his coauthors do not mention blondes at all in their paper and they don’t even have hair color in their data. The supplementary analyses that Sell performed after the publication of the paper, as a personal favor to the Times reporter, show the exact opposite of what the Times article claims. After he presumably listened to Sell explain all of this on the phone, the Times reporter nonetheless made up the whole thing, and attributed it to Sell.

This is eerily reminiscent of my own experience with a British journalist. He interviewed me in 2006 about one of my articles, which demonstrates, among other things, that the average intelligence of a population is positively correlated with the health of the population everywhere in the world, except in Africa. The headline of the article he wrote? “Low IQs are Africa’s curse, says lecturer.”

When I first heard about the so-called “warrior princess” finding, it did not make any sense to me. Unlike Sell, I am interested in the effect of hair colors on personality and other individual differences, and I have studied such effects of hair colors in the past (although it is very difficult to get data on hair colors because everybody unquestioningly assumes that they are not important so nobody collects data on them). The claim that blondes are more “warlike” is not at all consistent with what I know about what blondes are like compared to women of other hair colors. So, not only do British journalists make things up, but what they make up doesn’t even make sense.

Read the rest of this article here.