"The Personal Made Public: Reporting on Social Change"


Caryl Rivers

Boston University


Northwestern University "Literature of Fact" Lecture Series

February 25, 2002



"I think that hear a lot about reporters being biased, and I think that intentional biases really aren't all that important in the reporting process, but it's what reporters have in their heads before they even pick up their note book that I'm inclined to look at.  I think there's some interesting stuff that I've found. For example, I have this slide show that I've put together myself, which is a major achievement for someone who's totally technologically challenged, but this is what I would think the average reporter thinks of when you think of the American family, the traditional family, this is a Norman Rockwell painting and when the reporter thinks of today's family this is what we think of. It's the myth of the happy pair. And the way you see this is a lot of background paragraphs in journalists' work. The decline of the family today is an important social problem. The family is falling apart. What reporters don't ask is, compared to what? In fact when you listen to a lot of Dr. Laura and you listen to radio talk show hosts you have this drum beat of the family that's failed. The subtext is that women have failed. Because, of course, women are responsible for the family. The fact is we have these eras of what is terrific for the family, one of them being the Victorian Era. Well, what really happened in the Victorian Era, in fact middle-class Victorian women suffered from hysterical illness, huge addiction to morphine, sexual dysfunction and enormous depression. Also there were a 100,000 kids on the street addicted to alcohol. That's the Victorian Era.


The 1950's is another era is set-up as a time we have declined from. In the 1950's married women had rates of anxiety and depression that were five times as men and in fact on observer said that marriage is a health hazard for women. In fact fathers in the 1950's were so remote and divorced from their kids in terms of time they spent with them that there's actual data showing that divorced fathers in the 1970's spent much more time with their children than did married fathers in the 1950's. So where are we declining from and for people who think that the illegitimacies in regard to poor black teenagers, the records show that in pre-revolutionary war Concord, Massachusetts, more than 33% of the babies were born out of wed-lock. So, you know when was this 'golden era' of family? In fact the family has always been imperiled, it's always been under stress. And if you think that blended families are terrible like we're hearing now because of divorce, in fact the traditional American family is the blended family. Because before the 1900's, 50% of children lost one or both parents to death. So, the average American family throughout history has been a bunch of people living together. Children were living with relatives. Sometimes strangers were living in the house. That was the traditional American family. It wasn't "Ozzie and Harriet." So that when you see that background paragraph that says the decline of the American family, ask yourself, "decline from when?"


Here's another myth--this is the myth of female strength. You'll see Medusa with the snakes in her hair. The coverage of women is often very much skewed by the archetypes that people have in their heads. This is the myth of female strength. You know she's Wonder Woman and Medusa. She's all wrapped up, able to reduce man to jello. When you look at the coverage of Bill and Hillary Clinton you see a lot of this mythology. I once did a search and found 50 references to Hillary Clinton as a witch. And I said, "Where did this come from?" Do you ever see Ronald Reagan pictured as a warlock, or any other male politicians referred to in this kind of way? Well, if women are not that, they're this. This is the myth of female weakness. This is where the woman, she's so full of the hormones that are sloshing around; it's a wonder she can get out of bed in the morning. Look at the coverage of things like PMS. Why is PMS, why does it become a huge story, but when a guy walks into McDonalds and sort of mows everybody down because the cheeseburgers are cold we don't say testosterone poisoning. So this kind of mythology is still out there.


Another thing I've been noticing lately is the coverage of daycare. There is a huge message coming out of the coverage of daycare. The message that is coming out of the coverage of daycare is that raising children is so terrible, so fraught with danger that women must be home all the time to do it and if they go out and try to get educated or try to work or try to do other things, they're destroying civilization. This cartoon came from a study. Big major study going on by the federal government. 10 cities, 1,500 kids. And just recently the findings came out. How many of you saw the bullies headline? That daycare produces bullies? Big story, but the truth of this is that when you look at what actually happens, it's not reflective of any of this. Seventeen percent of the kids in daycare were judged to be aggressive. They did a control group of kids at home. But, when you look at the actual things that kids were judged on. Here's what they are. This is what an aggressive kid does: bragging, arguing, showing off, talking too much, being loud. So, if you were a kid in this study and you did this, you were labeled aggressive, thus pathological. So this is what these news stories were based on. How many of you were asking questions? Not very many reporters asked to see, either called the right person to say what does it mean that they were bullies? If they had they would have found out this is what it means and it doesn't say what it's supposed to. And interestingly enough, the same study showed that kids in daycare had much better skills--verbal skills, thinking skills, all sorts of cognitive skills--much higher than kids not in daycare. There was no headline on that particular finding. And earlier when the first study came out, they found that kids in daycare were really strongly attached to their mother. They were bonded to their mothers. I've checked the stories on that. There's been stories for years about how daycare was terrible for kids--they weren't going to be attached to their mothers. I've checked the database, there are exactly 12 stories on the positive side, six of them I wrote. The other six showed up in very small type.


Another example of this. This is a New York Times cover story. This is a story about Romanian orphans. Here is the tagline on the front. If I had to give a prize to the most, really the most irresponsible tagline, here it is. Children adopted by Americans from the worst Eastern European orphanage may be telling us not only about the extreme trauma of parental deprivation, but also about the more routine separations of parent and child. That means working moms who go to work everyday--these orphans are telling you something about you and your kid. There is not one shred of evidence to show that the situation of these orphans, which is terrible, has one thing on earth to do with the situations of normal kids. Does this horrify mothers, your average working mothers? You look up and go, "oh my god," and you know, my kids are going to be like these Romanian orphans.  Where was the editor?  The story, by the way, which is a very bad story was really garbled, it sort of raised the possibility there might be some connection and then basically dismissed it.  But the headline and what I find is that the graphics are really awful because sometimes the story is decent, but the graphic is terrbile.


Here's another example--Newsweek, "The Myth of Quality Time: How we're cheating our kids and what you can do." The story doesn't say anything about that. The story is based on a book called "The Time Bind" by ?, which was very poorly researched, all the critics said it didn't show what it purports to show, and in any event it never said, it never says there's a myth of quality time. A story by Laura Shapiro was pretty decent, but you look at the headlines and graphics and say, "Oh my god, what's happening here?" Again you find that this is what happens all the time. Here's another one. This is one of my very favorites. "Forever Single: Born to late, Expect too much, and you may be forever single." This story still hangs around. It came out in the late '80s. It wound up as a lot of dialogue in "Sleepless in Seattle." Newsweek did a cover story showing a downhill skier, this is how fast women's marriage chances go downhill after 35. What's the message of this story? The message of this story is that women if you don't grab the first guy available, if you go have a career, get a degree, do something else, you are doomed to be forever single, I mean really scary stuff, what's the truth behind it? This was a study, an obscure demographic study, showing that women born in the baby boom, if they would only marry a man two or three years older would have slim pickings, but if they would marry man their own age, there was no problem. Or if they would marry a man one or two years younger there was no problem. There was no man shortage. There was only a man shortage for the woman who got up every morning and said, oh, my god, if I don't marry a man who is exactly 2.4 years older than I am I will not consider. You know Antonio Banderas could come by and I would say, no, you're the wrong age. This was a totally bogus story. It's repeated over and over and over, and it is still out there. You still hear people quoting it. What¹s the facts? New data showing that the more education a woman has the more marriageable she is. This comes out of a new study. And why? Because men's marriage habits are changing, because men¹s incomes have been staggering and declining for the last 15 years. So here's average, smart, Northeastern graduate. He has the choice of uneducated, teenybopper A, or a law graduate B, who is making $60,000 a year. Is he going to run to uneducated teenybopper and say, ³I will reject beautiful law graduate because², why? Who knows? But it's not true. Men are seeking as marriage partners now women with more education. So all this single stuff is not only based on bad science, but it is no longer true if it ever was.


Here's another. The New York Times magazine is one of my favorites. In a cover piece, "Why men are different: the defining power of testosterone." This is by Andrew Sullivan who is a New York writer, who is HIV positive and takes testosterone. He's not a science writer; he graduated from Cambridge I believe. He's a very gifted political writer. But this is a science story, he's writing a science story on what testosterone does. And guess what he gets it all wrong. One of the things he says is that women because they don't have testosterone will probably not succeed as managers. Now why are the Times editors letting Andrew Sullivan get away with this? They better not let me get away with it. I can tell you, if I was writing this I would have a New York Times editor with an old ruler like the nuns used to use whacking me on the shin saying okay, give me a cite on that, prove it. In fact, three or four scientists wrote in and complained about this and said this is absolutely bogus stuff. In fact, what does the research show? What the research shows, now and it is very reliable, is hardly any difference between male managers and female managers. Recent studies in 2002 show that the women were even more hard driving than the men. Testosterone, if you are in a bar fight may be good, but if you are managing a complicated business enterprise, testosterone probably has nothing to do with it. And as scientists point out you can take a whole group of men and you can tell nothing about them and you can¹t tell who's going to be aggressive by their testosterone levels. The fact is that they think its aggression that creates testosterone, not the reverse. So if you go in someplace and get angry and get in a fight, that elevates your testosterone levels. But if you have two guys and you test their testosterone levels you aren't going to be able to predict who's going to get in a bar fight. This is absolutely bogus and yet it is on the front page of the New York Times magazine.


There¹s a very trendy new phenomenon called evolutionary psychology. And it really is a successor to sociobiology.  And it basically said that because back in the Stone Age--they basically put the 1950's families back into the Stone Age. Because of the Stone Age, men hunted, they whacked people on the head, they ran around. Women basically sat by the campfire minding the children and waiting for the big hunters to come back and so, men can do math, and women can't. Men can be managers and women can't. This is all written in respectable publications. Man the hunter was very chic for a while. And it is very interesting because one of the pieces that data on man the hunter was built on was, an archeologist found a bunch of skulls in a cave in South Africa and said, oh, look at the dent in the head, that's the blow of a weapon. This shows that hunting started much earlier in history than traditionally thought. And that man was aggressive and that's what made humans human--all this aggression. So we had the hunting hypothesis and we had here's Harvard socio-biologist Neil Wilson, because men hunted and women didn't, even with equal education for and equal access to all professions, men are likely to remain disproportionately represented in political life, business and science.  Well, that first piece of data on which all this was based, when they went back and looked with an electron microscope, in fact the injury turned out to match exactly the bite pattern of a leopard. This guy wasn't killed by a weapon. He was a lunch for a carnivore and in fact, what we are told by new studies is that aggression started very late in human history. The story of early humans wasn't of big, powerful hunters and passive women, but of rather weak but very agile human beings who were always on the move. Men women and children hunted, they gathered a lot. And so skills that you needed for math and things were probably gotten not by throwing spears which came very late in human history, but by having to know the territory, by having to memorize root and berries and having to navigate your way by the stars. That was just as much female as male. So this kind of thing is nonsense.


This is another evolutionary psychology, what do men want? Men are supposedly hardwired to want very young women with baby faces who look basically like infants because this is supposed to be a sign of fertility. What's the truth? Well in fact, in every other non-human primate, when males go looking for mates, they don't look for juveniles; they don't look for very young baby-faced females. They look for women who have already given birth because that's the real sign of fertility. So there's very little evidence that men are looking for very young women. And among humans there's a lot of evidence that again men are not seeking very young, they're seeking women with resources. That's very well documented. So if we are basically hard-wired for this, man¹s behavior's changing and if it shouldn't be, so it probably isn't hard-wired.


Here's another one. What do women want? They want an older, rich man with resources. Presumably because they can't support themselves and they can't support their children. So therefore they want basically Donald Trump, you know, the rich, older guy. Guess what? Not true, if it ever was because again, new research shows, as women get more resources, are no longer looking for older, provider males. What's becoming more important for women now is empathy, the ability of men to care for children. This is becoming much more important in society where there's gender equality, where women can have resources. If you go to very male dominated society you'd probably see some of the old patterns, but none of this is true.


And another story that's been really big and very damaging is children of divorce bear life-long scars. You've heard this and what happens here, this is an example of where a very much-debated fact gets into the background paragraph. Lets see if I have this one here. Here is a story from the Boston Globe on divorce. And it saysŠ here's the background paragraph. The study done by Judith Wollerstein documents that children who live with both parents even in a problem plagued home fare better in their adult lives than those raised in broken marriages. That's put in the background paragraph as fact. What's the truth? In fact, this study was done by a psychologist who studied 131 people in Marin County. They were all in divorce counseling. Every one of them. And if you study troubled people you'll get trouble. You can't say I want to know about Bush and Gore and say I'm going to go down to the Republican club of Chicago. And that's going to tell me what Americans feel. That's exactly what this study did. And people panicked. People who were considering divorce thought, Oh, my God, maybe we should stay together and not get divorced, even in rotten marriages because their kids were going to be miserable. In truth, there's tons of research showing that this is not true. If you look at a different population that is not so troubled to begin with, most children of divorce, if they have the love and attention of at least one parent, do quite well emotionally in the years ahead when the parents are divorced. Staying in high-conflict marriages is much worse for children than breaking up and having the child live with at least one good parent. In a fairly recent study they studied 10,000 subjects and tried to predict would the people who's parents divorced, would they get divorced? And they wouldn't. There's no difference. So, if you think, oh, there's a divorce culture, because people are getting divorced their kids are going to get divorced, this major study shows there's no difference. If your parents got divorced, that doesn¹t predict that you¹re going to get divorced. It has no meaning whatsoever.


So, one of the things that I like reporters to look at is a lot of this conventional wisdom. And one of the questions to ask is, "says who?" Who says this? And what's the data it's based on? Who's agenda is being served? I think a lot of these stories were picked up particularly by conservative media, by right-wing talk show hosts, by good old Dr. Laura. Dr. Laura by the way has a degree in physiology. She doesn't know diddly-squat about psychology. She has her own, she's like my Aunt Mable, I'd just as soon ask her as Dr. Laura and she knows as much. So, I think that reporters, when you're going out to ask questions, particularly about things that delve into that conventional wisdom, it's always good to start asking, who's agenda does this serve, and where this information comes from and who's on the other side, is there anybody saying something different. Because you'll often find, particularly if the messages are that women are too ambitious, blacks are too uppity, that any other group is whatever, be a little bit suspicious of that message, if somebody is trying to give you scientific data to prove it. Ask questions. Examine your own thoughts. How did this get in my head? Because it may be in your head not on the basis of anything you thought, but just as things that have come down almost over eons and centuries and are just so woven into our culture, they're very hard to sort out."




Copyright 2002 Caryl Rivers. All rights reserved.