So… I saw this article making its way through the Interwebs a while back, and I’m not going to lie. I was intrigued. Not because I think that relaxers are the devil – I’m generally indifferent to them, though I am natural, myself – but because fibroids are serious business and affect a lot of women. Also because, quite frankly, it’s not often that research is centered especially around African American women in this way, and it’s doubly not often that health research gets legs and walks all throughout Black online media the way this has.

That being said, I was pretty disappointed by the way the study was manipulated… to the point that it was being championed as “the nail in the coffin” for “relaxers and the harm they cause and perpetuate in society.” The ultimate turnoff, for me, was the number of people who said “No, I don’t think weight or diet plays a part in fibroids because I’m thin and I have/had them.” At that point, I had to step back*. I step back from a lot of studies, just because they’re not only inconclusive, but that nasty game of “Telephone” turns things into thangs and then sensationalism turns it into big giant huge inavoidable thangs. I don’t really like that.

Danielle Lee, The Urban Scientist from Scientific American, wrote an amazing post about how the story spread like wildfire, the “journalistic flaws” and laziness shown in websites with large audiences, and the need for more journalistic credibility in general when reporting science to the Black community.

I have a bad habit, that I’m trying to break, of quoting damn-near entire articles (but sometimes, they’re sooooooo good!), but I’m trying to stop that. That being said, here are a few excerpts from Danielle’s post that I think are important… and also relate a lot to me, here:

It seems the news story out of Houston is what got all of this started; but it was the sharing of the story on the two online magazines that helped it reach a nationwide audience.  However, all three major sources, Fox News, Clutch Magazine, and Madame Noire reported inaccurate information about the study.  They conflated the methods and results of two separate studies: one study by Wise et al. studied hair relaxer use and possible risk of uterine fibroids, another study by James-Todd et al. studied black hair care products and early onset of puberty.  Both studies focused on African-American women. However, it does not appear that the two lines of research were connected nor were the two research teams collaborating.   This is important, because it signals a lack of due diligence on the part of the journalists and editors/producers at each of this organizations.

At this point I could more-or-less determine if subsequent coverage was derived from the Fox News coverage or the Clutch/Madame Noire coverage.  In fact, as I was reading blog posts and articles, I started to notice the same phrases and repeats of mistakes.  At first I thought, perhaps people were re-stating phrases from a press release. However, the Boston University Public Relations website reveals no evidence of a press release of the Wise et. al research.

It was beginning to look like a lot of copying and pasting with no one acknowledging the original source(s).

The widely referenced New Study Links Relaxers To Fibroids at on Wednesday, February 22, 2012, looked to be a nearly perfect scraping of the Madame Noire piece.  The only changes were omitting the name of the beautician mentioned in the original piece and the addition of Fibroid Facts at the end.

Your Black – a news aggregating blog site relayed the piece, page 1 word-for word on February 22, 2012. The article even stops mid-sentence: Study Links Hair Relaxers To Fibroid Tumors and Early Puberty In African American Females.

That same day, The Intersection of Madness & Reality author published: STUDY: Hair Relaxers Linked to Fibroids in African American Women. This post linked back to the piece and the author tells us that he first heard of the perms linked to fibroids story on the Tom Joyner Morning Show a week before.  This is the first time anyone references a national radio program spreading this story and provides a rough idea of when it was shared. The Tom Joyner Morning Show is affiliated with Black America and they posted their own article on Friday, February 24, 2012. Study Finds Link Between Tumors and Perms.  I know that Tom Joyner is based out of Texas and I suspect he may have gotten wind of the FOX news story; the piece at the webiste links back to the Fox Houston news coverage.  But what’s especially alarming about this report is how poorly they covered this new item.

But now an even more disturbing report has entered the scene via a study conducted by Boston University, which proves that relaxers used to straighten black hair have a proven link to the fibrous tumors that disproportionately affect black women.

The research team proved nothing and they make no such claim.  This was bad reporting or an egregious error on the part of the writer at this site.  I recognize the very strong influence of syndicated radio programs for sharing important news with very large audiences.  Programs like the Tom Joyner Morning Show and the Michael Baisden Show draw huge urban markets and are powerful media brokers.  However, I’ve also been very disappointed with them for spreading misinformation about science and health news specifically.

African-Americans seem to be one of the most disconnected audiences from science, especially if you use the amount of science-related coverage in black media outlets as a gauge.  To me, it’s no real surprise that we are so under-served and that the gaps in achievement in science, as well as the participation in STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) careers are so great.  Sadly, as much our leaders exclaim the importance of education, however, our collective exercise of scientific literacy has been lacking.  This is one such instance.

Emphasis is hers, but dang. She goes on:

There were many journalistic flaws:

1. A majority of the pieces, at news sites and at blogs were exact duplicates of each other.  Visit each of the links provided or scroll through the screen shots of the websites, here.

2. There was little or no research. Who investigated this story? It seems quite obvious to me that no one contacted the researchers, the journals, or the press offices from either of the institutions mentioned.  There were no quotes or explanations of the study(ies) in the short write-ups.  Moreover, mashing the two research studies together was a major oversight.

It was also clear that no one bothered to read the original research articles.   Conclusions were poorly explained and over-simplified results were shared.  I know this is a sore spot that comes up often between scientists and journalists.  Scientists routinely complain of journalists sensationalizing the results or getting the science wrong.  But this infraction was worse.  It was so apparent that this wasn’t a journalist innocently misunderstanding complex science.  No, this was like a game of telephone gone badly – and no one was even on the telephone.  One source shared the story and one-by-one additional (online) media programs picked up the story and added a little literary flare – framing the issue as a Natural Hair vs. Chemical Hair discussion – to draw in black female readers; and the fire spread.

And, finally, bring it on home, girl:

But my big take home message is that Black Media outlets have got to do better.  This recent news coverage about chemical relaxers and uterine fibroids in African-American women presents a learning opportunity to all of us – producers and consumers of news.  It time for media producers and distributors to provide authentic science journalism in our news outlets.  It’s time consumers – TV, radio, print, and online – to demand more high quality informative news, not just shock and awe coverage.  Our health is serious business and not the place to provide lazy copy, pasted, and unconfirmed news bits.

It is past time for our old guard and new guard media organizations to create meaningful, relevant news content related to health, environment, technology, and education. Black Media it’s time for you host professional science journalists in your organizations.

I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that this didn’t apply to me, as well. Not in a “Ohhh, you’re creating clusterf– uhhh, misunderstandings among people!” kind of way, but in a “This is a polite reminder that even science reporting requires due diligence and balance” kind of way. The only time I get studies without journalistic fudging attached is when one of you lovely people sends it directly to me, and even then I don’t report it – I just file it away in my mental rolodex and save it to compare against my own experiences, future studies that come up or other reporting on it. There are very few things that I pounce on immediately. This is why.

I’m also kind of blown away by how she put a lot of websites on blast for lazy or inaccurate reporting. I just… it’s a lot to think about as someone who writes about science-related topics and will, assuredly, be reading a lot of these kinds of studies on my own in terms of being kept up to date on my new field. It gives me insight into what counts as respectable reporting on studies, which is important to me because, while I do care a lot about helping people further their desires to live healthier lives, I have no interest in being manipulative to do it.

I’d also be lying if I didn’t admit that I noticed how some of the same outlets I’d expect to be critical of a woman having natural hair seemed to be some of the ones who jumped on “reporting” on this the fastest.

That being said, I’d like to know how you guys processed what happened in this situation. What were you thinking as this unfolded? And, furthermore, to the scientists in the crowd, what advice do you have for someone like me who writes about studies often but doesn’t want to do what was, apparently, done here? Though I don’t believe it’s Danielle’s responsibility to teach us, I’d soooo love it if she wrote a “guide to writing and reporting on scientific research,” because as little reporting as is done on this stuff in the Black community, it’s important that we do everything we can to get as much of it right as possible.

*If you’re wondering, I’m generally more inclined to believe that diet – particularly the hormones present in lots of animal meat and some dairy products – plays a huge part in the prevalence of fibroids, and the outright dismissal of that sounded more like a witch hunt to blame relaxers for the downfall of Black civilization. There are legitimate reasons for giving up relaxers. Manipulating science is unnecessary. That’s why I stepped back.