Context and detail are essential when reporting on academic research. If the media covers a study and fails to include them appropriately, misconception, and even blatant misrepresentation, can occur.
The most recent local offense of exclusion of context and detail in the media comes from the coverage of Up, Not Down: The Age Curve in Happiness from Early Adulthood to Midlife in Two Longitudinal Studies by Nancy L. Galambos et al. The main finding of this study is an upward happiness trajectory from late adolescence to early adulthood, using longitudinal studies of up to 25 years.
While this statement presents the overall conclusions and methods, it’s deceptively straightforward, and lacks crucial subtleties of the research that are needed for accurate representation. Unfortunately, this is often the way that the media has chosen to depict the study.
The majority of the media suggests applicability to the general population. This isn’t entirely accurate, despite longitudinal methods. The study itself addresses this concern, stating “Turning to possible limitations … generalizability, too, is an issue. Although the samples were representative of the populations from which they were drawn and likely representative of cohorts of youth from the same era in other similar North American cities … younger cohorts may not necessarily follow the same trajectory.”
It’s true that longitudinal methods are more appropriate than the cross-sectional analysis used in many prior studies of happiness, but in no way does it make the study applicable to all. The media often portrays the longitudinal technique with reverence in relation to this study, and fails to mention that it also possesses tangible flaws.
Some articles are also eager to support the notion that this study has relegated the “mid-life crisis” to mythical status. However, nowhere in the paper itself is “mid-life crisis” mentioned. Neither do the authors claim that their research refutes a mid-life crisis completely. They’re quoted as saying the data suggests the need to reconsider this socially-accepted belief. While this is entirely reasonable, I’m not sure how expected academic skepticism transformed into complete media denial, fostering headlines such as “Your midlife crisis doesn’t exist: we actually get happier as we age.”
As for overall content, most media did adequately portray the “mid-life crisis myth” as merely suggestion, as it should be. But others simply restated their horrifically inaccurate headlines, continuing in their hopefully unintentional misrepresentation.
Perhaps the most unfortunate consequence of this incomplete portrayal results indirectly from the actions of the media in the form of consumers reactions. Some naïvely take the partial story as complete, making initially logical, but ultimately wrong, assumptions. Others read headlines, skim articles, and rashly discount studies as frivolous based on flawed representation. Both these extremes are ultimately denied what I believe to be a worthwhile study.
A potential solution is for readers to supplement articles by perusing the study themselves. Of course, this isn’t always plausible. While the study is only eight pages long, if readers don’t possess the necessary background or initial interest in the topic, it can appear dense and tedious. Alternatively, all media outlets could just portray the study accurately to begin with.
This isn’t to say that I think the media shouldn’t cover research. They absolutely should, and actually, it’s crucial they do. Knowledge is meant to be shared, and without coverage the larger community would be ignorant of new discoveries. But cherry-picking in the overflowing orchard that is academic research supplies sweet, seductive details at the expense of crucial contextual roots. If a reader is lured into an article, it shouldn’t be because of headlines advertising definitive renouncement of depressing socially-accepted beliefs. Likewise, a reader’s attention should be preserved with relevant, accurate detail, not convenient omission.