Friday, November 2, 2012

What was CNN thinking?

On October 25th CNN published an online story called “Do hormones drive women’s votes?” Asserting that women's uncontrollable ovulation cycles will influence the presidential race, and that women lean liberal when ovulating because they "feel sexier," the story incurred substantial backlash on Twitter. CNN removed the story within seven hours of publication and posted the following disclaimer:
"A post previously published in this space regarding a study about how hormones may influence voting choices has been removed. After further review it was determined that some elements of the story did not meet the editorial standards of CNN."
The following day Fox News published a responsive piece posing the burning question: “what was CNN thinking?”

Modern science suggests that hormonal disparities between genders do in fact affect decision-making. Neuropharmacology's article "Gender moderates the association between 5-HTTLPR and decision-making under ambiguity but not under risk" explores how gender moderates the effects of genetic polymorphisms on serotonin function, and is based on scientific evidence that there are gender differences in decision-making. However, subsequent reports on the CNN story suggest that it was based less on science, and more so on ignorance. Jason Linkins of the Huffington Post asserts that it is rare for a news organization as big as CNN to pull a story, so the network must have recognized that the report was "rived with bogosity."

So what was CNN thinking when it published this story? Perhaps it was not as uncalculated as critics propose. Published under the website's health section, the article highlighted a study out of the University of Texas (UT) that investigated how women vote differently than men based on a variety of factors: whether they are ovulating, single, or in a committed relationship. Perhaps the CNN author was just misunderstood-- after all, she is also a woman. Could Elizabeth Landau have done a better job reporting on a study that anticipates upcoming publication in the highest ranked empirical psychology journal, Psychological Science? Perhaps she should have taken her cues from Judy Itzkovich of the Jerusalem Post.

In 2009, the Jerusalem Post published an article called "Hormones can influence decision-making while voting." A key difference between this article and the Landau's piece is Judy Itzkovich's tendency to treat men and women equitably. Focusing on stress, as opposed to gender, the article presents an inconclusive study that reveals that levels of (the stress hormone) cortisol are almost three times higher in individuals at the time of voting, than on the following day. As such, the article suggests that increased cortisol levels might influence people who indicate their desire to vote for the less popular candidate to change their votes.

Hormones undoubtedly affect decision-making, which in turn, may affect voter choice. However, to suggest that women are so highly influenced by ovulation and relationships that they become irrational beings is shocking. What's more shocking is that a woman is proffering this misinformation, using a news source as influential as CNN to frame it as scientific fact. I am not a psychologist, but I'm certain that the science behind psychological influence is more complex than Landau suggests.

On a positive note, this incident exemplifies the power of social media tools like Twitter and Facebook. These sites offer women a forum to compose a powerful collective voice-- one that is strong enough to make CNN acknowledge poor journalism, and retract a bogus report. 


KB said...

I find it fascinating that a woman wrote the article that CNN removed. What would compel her to publish an article that suggests that her relationship status and ovulation cycles irrationally dictate her political decisions? I find that to be an insult to all women’s intelligence and engagement with political thoughts and dialogue. I think the Jerusalem Post had the right approach. At the least the article should have looked to the science MC mentioned and noted that both men and women have hormones that influence their decisions. Then hopefully it would be clear that hormones affect everyone’s decisions, but they do not make peoples’ decisions.

Sarah said...

Thanks to people like you reminding people that overt sexism is news - even if the crap they peddle isn't. News has become nothing more than a headline for many (most) publishers. Out and out plagiarism and misinformation are common, and rarely caught. The news cycles just keep replacing one another, and each one fighting to be the most inflammatory and inane to catch that fleeting glance of the coveted internet news reader. [i.e. If you ever see a headline that says a "lawmaker" did anything - keep going!] To make a punchy headline to share on Facebook or Twitter. We need a well funded national news service now more than ever.