STATS Professor Pushes Media toward Higher Standards

Posted: October 24, 2006 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By David Driver

Say you read an article in a newspaper you don’t agree with, or question how the reporter drew his conclusions. Perhaps you decided to write a letter to the editor, or placed a call to the writer to talk about the story. Most of us, perhaps, simply move on or don’t even bother to question the accuracy of what we read or heard.

Rebecca Goldin
Rebecca Goldin

That is not the case for Rebecca Goldin, an associate professor in the Department of Mathematical Sciences at George Mason. A large part of her working day is spent reading over newspaper articles and watching television news programs, then writing stories (or assisting other writers with their stories) that refute or challenge inaccurate media reports dealing with science and statistics.

Goldin, who has a PhD in mathematics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a BA, cum laude, from Harvard University, does this work through her role as director of research for the nonprofit, nonpartisan Statistical Assessment Service (STATS).

STATS, which was founded in 1994 and became affiliated with George Mason two years ago, is still nonprofit, with its own donor base, says Goldin. STATS has an office in Washington, D.C., but Goldin does most of her work for STATS at her office at Mason. Robert Lichter, professor of communication at George Mason and director of the Center for Media and Public Affairs, is president of STATS.

“We help to improve the quality of journalism that uses data and statistics. That is our goal,” says Goldin. “We try to play an educational role. We want to encourage a higher standard” for journalists working on stories that deal with science and statistics.

For example, earlier this month, Goldin wrote an article for STATS that took to task a story in the San Francisco Chronicle that implied many of the cosmetics worn by women (and some men) are bad for one’s health. “We like to disarm health scares,” says Goldin.

Trevor Butterworth of STATS wrote an editor’s note leading into Goldin’s story. It read: “STATS asked the San Francisco Chronicle for comment on this article. We spoke, in some detail, to the Home and Gardens features editor, Lynette Evans, who then refused to go on the record; Evans directed us to the Chronicle’s managing editor Robert Rosenthal for comment; Rosenthal said he was passing the matter on to Meredith White, deputy managing editor. White did not respond. Normally, we investigate what a news organization writes and not the editorial reasoning behind the story, but we were surprised by the appearance of such a one-sided piece especially in light of the draft toxicological review published this summer by the Environmental Protection Agency, which lowers the risk on DBP, one of the chemicals cited as dangerous in the Chronicle story.”

Goldin’s story began: “The San Francisco Chronicle’s one-sided reporting about phthalates in cosmetics has continued the media’s obsession with the supposedly harmful effects of beauty products. Armed with little more than the web sites of special interest groups, the Chronicle is scaring the pants – make that the face – off of women (and some men) who use make-up across the country. This is the way scare-mongering goes: your cosmetics have phthalates! Before we even know what phthalates are, we are scared of them. After all, they have a scary overly-chemical name to them. And all chemicals are bad, right?”

STATS is not always critical of the media. The organization has been critical in the past of the New York Times, but this summer STATS praised the paper for two of its stories. And STATS does not always contact the newspaper or television network before they post a story about the media report on their web site, says Goldin.

Goldin is aware that many journalists face daily deadline pressure and do not have – or take – the needed time to research a story. She says that some journalists can be defensive or “not very responsive” when they are contacted by STATS. Some journalists may be “perhaps over their head” when working on a story, she says.

Other journalists welcome a resource tool such as STATS; in fact, there is a link on the STATS web site for journalists if they would like assistance while working on a story.

STATS’ work has been featured on NBC’s “Nightly News,” “The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer,” ABC’s “20/20,” the New York Times and Wall Street Journal.

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