Aug 9, 2012 : The media’s coverage of scientific research into same-sex animal behaviour promotes negative stereotypes of gay and lesbians, say researchers.
Dr Andrew Barron from Macquarie University, and Dr Mark Brown from Royal Holloway University of London, present their analysis today in the journal Nature.
“People who identify with these minority groups in a human population see themselves presented for titillation, humour and not to be taken seriously,” says Barron.
He and Brown identified 11 recent scientific papers on key areas of same-sex animal behaviour research. They then searched for media coverage of these papers and chose 48 representative press reports to analyse in detail.
“Consistently any scientific report of same-sex sexual contact in any animals is reported as gay or lesbian behaviour,” says Barron. “It’s presented for titillation, often for humour, regardless of what the science actually is.”
“Gay and lesbianism is more than same-sex copulation in humans. Let’s not turn this animal behaviour into something that it isn’t,” he says. “Scientists would never call it gay.”
And Barron says in many cases the animals in the scientific study didn’t even copulate but simply showed some form of atypical male or female behaviour.
“It’s not just a simplification but a gross misrepresentation of the science and it’s having a negative effect,” he says.
Barron says sometimes the media portray homosexuality as something that is a result of a genetic fault and then coverage “goes from being derogatory to downright dangerous”.
He quotes a study in which female mice that had a certain gene knocked out exhibited some male typical sexual behaviour.
“The Telegraph presented this as ‘Female mice can be turned lesbian by deleting gene’,” says Barron.
“If we’re saying we can induce lesbian behaviour by a mutation then we are, by extension, saying lesbian behaviour is a pathology,” he says. “That’s neither an accurate or positive message about lesbians. It perpetuates profoundly homophobic attitudes.”
Another study of neurobiological features associated with male-male sexual behaviour in domestic rams was reported in the media under the headlines “Brokeback Mutton” and “Gay sheep may help explain biology of homosexuals”.
Barron says media reports portrayed the research as being part of an effort to “cure” homosexuality in sheep, which “could pave the way for breeding out homosexuality in humans”.
Appeal to scientists
Barron says scientists can make a difference by being careful about what they say to journalists.
“When scientists themselves … used the term ‘gay’, ‘lesbian’, ‘she-male’, ‘transvestite’ or ‘drag’ it was lept on by the popular media,” says Barron.
He contrasts this with reports on the work of researcher Lindsay Young, who studied pairs of female albatross involved in caring for their young.
While one press report referred to “Lesbian albatrosses”, most used the term “same-sex couples” and reported Young’s active denial that the findings were relevant to humans.
She was regularly quoted as saying “Lesbianism is a human term. The study is about albatross. The study is not about humans.”
Barron says Young managed to get a lot of media coverage despite not sensationalising her research.
“Research on sexual behaviour in animals does not need to be sensationalised to catch public attention,” conclude Barron and Brown.
Science in the media expert, Dr Joan Leach of the University of Queensland, welcomes the study and agrees some of the examples of media coverage given by Barron and Brown are “outrageous”, but thinks their analysis of the problem is simplistic.
She says reports on scientific research have to prove newsworthiness in a very competitive media environment, which likely encourages sensationalism.
But beyond this, it is not just the media that is to blame for such coverage, says Leach.
She says press officers and press releases play a major role in shaping the messages about research.
And scientists themselves are pressured to think about the impacts and implications of their research when talking to journalists, says Leach.
“Scientists are in a double bind,” she says. “They have all been to media training and been told to make their work relevant … and interesting to the general public. Talking about sex is definitely a way to do that,” says Leach.
And Leach says in some fields of research – for example evolutionary psychology – scientists are actively linking human behaviour to animal behaviour.
“You read this stuff not just about gay behaviour but about female versus male behaviour and it’s irritating,” she says.
“I get really tired of evolutionary psychology explanations that my behaviour has to do with hunters and gatherers.”
(By Anna Salleh, Courtesy: ABC Science)