Home BeautyBlack Hair Black Women, Relaxers, The Uterine Fibroids Study, Early Puberty & Journalistic Credibility

Black Women, Relaxers, The Uterine Fibroids Study, Early Puberty & Journalistic Credibility

by Erika Nicole Kendall

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 BlackDoctor.org 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 World.net – a news aggregating blog site relayed the BlackDoctor.org 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 BlackDoctor.org 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 Web.com 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.

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Jubilance March 6, 2012 - 2:03 PM

This write-up highlights a lot of the frustrations I feel with the media/journalists when they attempt to report on results of a study, or about a scientific topic in general. The majority of the public has an extremely limited scientific basis, and so anytime you begin to talk about the most elementary of technical topics, it begins to sound like the Charlie Brown Teacher – whomp whomp whomp. That’s why its imperative that journalists, bloggers, writers & other in media do their due diligence in fact checking & truly understanding a study & the conclusions made. There has to be more than just reading the pres release from a university or researcher. There definitely has to be more than simply running a piece that came from a wire service. But alas, I fear that will never happen because the people who truly understand & can articulate the results & conclusions, aren’t the ones in media. And that is a shame.

Kay Tee March 6, 2012 - 5:09 PM

First thing I thought when I heard about this study – GARBAGE. Garbage because fibroids run in my family and NONE of us have a need and/or use relaxers … and we are black. I was just irritated, and felt the “study” was meant to further a wedge in the community of black women.

I totally disregarded it after my first read … because I felt it did absolutely nothing to 1 – help women – ALL women who suffer from fibroids, and 2 – it was just a way to inflame a situation (natural hair and relaxed hair).

Lisa March 6, 2012 - 9:09 PM

Yeah, so…
I endured uterine fibroids for 10 years, and after 4 surgeries, I’m finally free. I am also a dedicated user of relaxer (as in, since the late 70s).

Seeing as fibroids PREDATE relaxers…and seeing as it is a topical application limited to at BEST 20 minutes POSSIBLY every six weeks…Skeptical Girl is Skeptical.

Sure enough…

At any rate, much like the recent uproar about contraceptives and whatnot, here’s the rub: if YOU don’t want to get a relaxer, don’t get one. However, I don’t need scare tactics and poorly presented information to PERSUADE me to STOP getting them. I’m fairly certain heredity is to blame for my fibroids (maternal grandmother, aunt, and two cousins had/have them as well), and as ALL of them were natural, I don’t think my Design Essentials was the smoking gun.

(changing my diet was the FIRST thing my doctor recommended – it helped but my symptoms were severe)

Daphne March 6, 2012 - 9:43 PM

Get it, Danielle! I’m glad someone put some of these outlets on blast for manipulative, shoddy reporting.

I’m no scientist by any stretch, but I am immediately suspicious of any media pouncing on “health-related” studies. It only took me a couple of times of being curious and reading a couple of the studies myself to realize how much skewing of data and wordplay is used to push agendas. That’s why I was so glad when actual scientists put the smackdown on the racist Kanazawa study last May.

Anyway, I’m not a writer, either, but I think part of the sloppy writing of online media is the nature of automatic “retweets” or “reposts” that sound wise, sensible, provide confirmation bias, or are just sensational. It seems like one of the fundamental tenets of good writing is lost: not just citing a source, but also validating them.

One thing that I did to ensure I understood what I was reading in a research study was…google how to read and understand research studies. Basic, I know.

niksmit March 7, 2012 - 12:40 AM

I’m a critical thinker and I was interested in journalism once upon a time. So I recognize which sites I read are glorified blogs masquerading as news outlets. I also recognize how the rise of blogs has degraded traditional media, along with the chase for dollars. I’m not anti-blog, as clearly I follow yours, but I am a critical thinker like I said.

So all that to say: my first thought upon stumbling upon this story was that I need to see the original study. I say that as someone who relaxed her hair for about seven years.

Beyond scientific journalism and Black media specifically, I need all media to do better about citing sources, fact checking, and following all basic journalistic protocol and ethics. I think you’re doing a good job already Erika. You could probably easily pull up whatever they’re supposed to be teaching in J-school via a search engine. That is if you cannot get a quick exchange with a professional journalist you respect.

Annette March 7, 2012 - 7:16 AM

I will say this my grandmother has never had a perm in her life, yet practically all the women in my family has had fibroid issues. Both grandmothers. My grandmothers where of the wig generation, so they weren’t into perms.

I wonder if this is because of the affects of slavery the stress, and conditions. The reproductive organs are part of the root chakra. Root Chakra governs issues around physical self-preservation. These issues include survival, security and safety, as well as primal erotic and procreational urges. Or just an issue with stress in the black community. We are under so much stress.

I could also just be an issue that is passed down through the generations due to our nervous system. My grandmother became a vegetarian, yet battled high blood pressure but the other didn’t had to battle cancer tell the end.

I have had my hair natural on and off, wore wigs, braids, and just blown it out and wore it in a bun, or twist. Yet I notice when I am stressed that was when I had the most issues with fibroids. Stressed keeping it in with no time for myself working long ours, not sleeping. When I live a more balanced lifestyle, I feel I can breath easier, less tense, I eat more green veges which lower my adrenal glands, keep my hormones balanced I feel better.

I went through a detox to get my weight under control. I was having fibroid problems at the time. Well I was so surprised, I drank lemongrass tea all day long it’s very cheap. Eat only green vegetables, fruits, 10 almonds with a cup of soy milk, minerals and vitamins. Well I lost the weight yet I didn’t get the cramping and also the heavy bleeding. I was amazed it shrank my fibroids. I had more energy felt less stress. So I figure it must be diet/lifestyle related.

Eldaka Admore March 7, 2012 - 7:08 PM

Really! This is first time I have heard of this issue. My first reaction was, “How Ridiculous, What will they come up with next”. I have fibroids and I’m all natural.

Kaila Heard March 8, 2012 - 4:35 PM

Even as a working reporter, I think many stories are driven by society’s expectations. As in, people are less likely to question something that aligns with their own beliefs.
But in actuality, I don’t see anything changing anytime soon. Most of the sites mentioned are well, “glorified blogs masquerading as news outlets” so until bloggers decide that there should be a higher standard to how their role functions then yes, most are content to be gossip columnists or personal essayists.

DrNay March 9, 2012 - 11:16 PM

When I first heard these stories, I was appalled. When I saw the sources of the stories, I wasn’t surprised as they are not necessarily the most newsworthy of outlets. Fibroids also run in my family. I have had natural hair for almost a decade and have not had them but I wouldn’t say that it’s because of my hair. I would say it’s because of my diet. In addition, my mother got them late in life so there is definitely still time for me.

That being said, Erika you write that one of us scientist types should provide a guide for understanding and reporting on our research. My response is simple…go to the source scientific article, read the abstract or introduction and conclusion, then email the lead author. The name of the lead author and current email is always published below the abstract or above the introduction. Email the author, explain that you are a non-scientist but want to know more about the research to share it with a wider non-scientist audience. Trust me, most of us have our lay person’s version of the findings ready because we have to explain it to the people who fund our research and policymakers who may need to do something because of our research. To me, it wouldn’t be a burden and for most, it would be a way to get our research out there correctly. Most of the time, we are offended by people who misrepresent us because it gives us a bad reputation.

Erika Nicole Kendall March 10, 2012 - 8:44 AM

You are awesome. Thank you!!

I also recognize that all this dialoguing, back and forthing interrupts the “24-hour news cycle” and the need for hits and striking a study while it’s hot…so it appears that the primary reason why people might be rushing to post [inaccurately] on this stuff is the thinking that it may lose it’s “hotness.” Interesting.

DrNay March 10, 2012 - 1:28 PM

Thanks for the compliment.

I would rather my research lose its hotness than be misrepresented.

Keep up the good work on your site!

Alexandrea Ward May 17, 2012 - 11:59 PM

I do agree with what you have said that you believe about the cause of fibroids and about giving up relaxers. I honestly did not read those articles because I had a feeling that it was more of a trend or something like that. Just like those other articles that said that African American women are least likely to get married and all that other crap. I just sat back and saw all the other sources of research out there make the same mistakes over this topic. It did disappoint me.

DNLee June 15, 2012 - 5:35 PM

Thank you for sharing this topi with your readers. It is an important one. I’m also grateful that you see the need to cultivate deeper relationships between scientists, journalists, and readers. I’m completely on board with that.

I hadn’t ever thought of creating “guide to writing and reporting on scientific research” but I am aware of some resources that are useful.

The National Association of Science Writers (www.nasw.org) is a professional society of journalists and writers who cover science, health, and discovery topics. They have a Field Guide for Science Writers. http://www.nasw.org/field-guide-science-writers-official-guide-national-association-science-writers

I’ve been petitioning the National Association of Black Journalists to create a professional track for science and health journalists. So far, no dice. I’m not a member of the organization, so I don’t understand how such a thing would/could be created, but in the meantime, Scientific American is definitely interested in attracting young, diverse talent to science journalism: http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/incubator/2012/06/06/a-call-to-arms-for-young-science-journalists/
We have a special blog, The SA Incubator for showcasing science journalism work of students. Feel free to submit your work.

In the meantime, I’ll keep my eyes/ears open for science journalism workshops and pass along the word to you an your readers. I’d like to see more voices like yours sharing science and health news to our community. We sorely need it.

Erika Nicole Kendall June 15, 2012 - 8:37 PM

I said this to you on twitter as well, but I am so thankful that you came here to comment on the post, here, and contributed in a way that the readers here will benefit from. I really think that the ability to develop a finer-tuned eye for understanding the science that’s supposed to change and improve our lives is paramount, especially when it seems like so much science and “study” these days is targeted directly at minority groups who are often overlooked as members of the panels that review these things in the first place.

So, really, thank you. I’m going to follow up with this, and we’ll see how it goes! 🙂

Mishie November 6, 2012 - 3:58 AM

I just read recently that vitamin D has reduced fibroids in mice and may possibly reduce it in humans. They found that african american women have a deficiency in vitamin D so they are thinking there is a possible link. The study believes the results are promising. I’ve attached the link to the NIH press release.


Lisa November 6, 2012 - 9:32 AM

As with anything concerning the media, medical articles, doctor’s opinions and the like, I always recommend that we do our homework. Where this particular subject matter is concerned, it is a proven fact that fibroids are more prevalent in women of color. Not just black/A-A women, but women of color. I agree with the previous comment, where it was stated that fibroids were here before perms, so how does this article substantiate it’s findings? Secondly, it is hereditary. We as women need to take a moment and have a conversation with our mothers, grandmothers, aunts and sisters to determine if this is something that is afflicting our family as a whole. I for one was afflicted by this ailment many years prior to receiving a proper diagnosis. Now a woman of 55, I realize that I was experiencing the symptoms of uterine fibroids prior to age 38, which is when I was diagnosed. The methods for diagnosis is much easier now than it was 30 years ago. After speaking with my mom, it was determined that she also was diagnosed, yet decided to forego having surgery for removal. I, on the other hand, had them removed…only for them to return 14 years later. My solution to their return was to have the uterus removed and avoid any future re-growth. Now, my niece of 41 is experiencing the same problems and it’s only because I’ve taken the time to communicate and share with her my experience, has she been able to go right to the source for diagnosis. Again, the single most important suggestion I can give is do your homework!

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