The hazards of press releases and academics

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Earlier this summer, associate sociology professor Mark Regnerus garnered national attention when he published a study finding that children with gay parents fared worse than those with straight parents. The response to Regnerus’ study was overwhelmingly negative, and objectors accused him of bigotry and bias. The controversy the study created resulted largely from editorializing a press release that sensationalized the study’s results and raised suspicions about Regnerus’ objectivity. This raises questions about what purpose press releases serve in aiding the public’s understanding of the studies they describe. The question of a press release’s purpose also arose in July, when The Daily Texan and then an outside accountability organization identified that the UT Energy Institute’s press release oversold and oversimplified claims made in a fracking study.

The university would do well to restrict the content of press releases to statements that can be entirely supported by studies’ results.

In his study’s press release, Regnerus is quoted saying of traditional families, “Such families provide a biological link between parents and children, and unparalleled levels of stability, both of which have a long reach in the benefits they afford to children.” The statement generated media frenzy, but it is not fully supported by the study itself.

The study evaluated very few children who had grown up with parents in a continuous gay relationship. Participants were asked, “From when you were born until age 18 (or until you left home to be on your own), did either of your parents ever have a romantic relationship with someone of the same sex?” (emphasis in study). The question elicited a range of responses, including answers describing parents who engaged in multiple relationships with individuals of both sexes. The entire sample of respondents raised by heterosexual couples, on the other hand, all lived their entire childhoods with their married biological parents.

In light of this disparity, Regnerus’ finding that the children whose parents had gay relationships fared worse in the long run than children raised by their biological parents could be interpreted as an indictment not of gay parents but of parents who have unstable or multiple relationships while raising children, an argument that Regnerus himself points out briefly in the press release.

But these interpretations have largely been silenced by activists and bloggers who insist that Regnerus has not simply published a study with a weak statistical design but has embarked on a crusade against gay rights. Much of their furor is a reaction to Regnerus’ quote in the original press release. It all leads one to wonder: Who writes these press releases, and why?

UT spokesman Gary Susswein said that media relations personnel in each college or department generally work with faculty members to write press releases. “We look to promote issues or studies that are significant,” he said. “We try to promote the studies that advance science or a debate on public policy in a significant way.”

Cary Nelson, who served as president of the American Association of University Professors from 2006 to 2012, said that very few academic articles published by faculty members get a press release on a university website. “Some topics are obviously in the news and have a much better chance of getting press coverage,” he said. “Or there’s something provocative in the conclusion that might generate press coverage.”

The result of these tendencies is that studies considered uncontroversial or simply uninteresting to the general public rarely warrant press releases unless a faculty member requests publicity for his or her work. It is easy to see how such a system could encourage flashy press releases designed to garner outside attention, but could also be more susceptible to introducing inaccuracies.

“In general, we always want to have quotes from [faculty members],” Susswein said. Sometimes quotes are not taken directly from a study because “if the study is written in a very scientific way, it may not be as accessible as just having the professor talk about it in layman’s terms and describe its potential impact.” In Regnerus’ case, it seems that either the media relations personnel who wrote the press release mined for provocative material, or Regnerus contributed an editorializing statement on his own.

The questions about potential design flaws and potential conflicts of interest are reasonable ones in the case of Regnerus’ study. UT’s decision to conduct an inquiry is a sound and responsible undertaking in contrast to the recklessness with which some recent reports have been promoted to the press.

Oliver is an English and sociology major from New Braunfels.