Bullies Like Bullying

How did a nonstory based on an iffy study end up in a New York Times blog?

A questionable study on the neuroscience of bullies

A year ago this month, the New York Times published one of the most notorious pieces of neuromarketing propaganda ever to show up in a major daily. Two Novembers ago, the Times science pages hawked a witless brain-imaging study of speaking in tongues. (In that case, converging evidence from scientists and journalists revealed a useful fact: If you think you’re babbling incoherently, then you probably are.)

And now here we are, just a week shy of Thanksgiving. How’s the venerable paper going to celebrate Bad Neuroscience Journalism Awareness Month this time around?

Thank goodness for Tara Parker-Pope, the Times’ personal-health blogger. Last Wednesday, she posted about a team of neuroscientists from the University of Chicago who had shoved a handful of bullying teenagers into an fMRI scanner to see what was going on inside their heads. “In a chilling finding,” she wrote, “the researchers found aggressive youths appear to enjoy inflicting pain on others.”

Bullies like bullying? I just felt a shiver run up my spine. Next we’ll find out that alcoholics like alcohol. Or that overeaters like to overeat. Hey, I’ve got an idea for a brain-imaging study of child-molesters that’ll just make your skin crawl!

Let’s pretend there were some good reason to wonder how much fulfillment a bully finds in his daily wedgies. The University of Chicago research wouldn’t help, even if we cared to know.

First, to call these kids bullies—as did Parker-Pope and just about every other science journalist on the scene—is a bit of an understatement. According to the authors of the study, the eight teenagers selected for the experimental group each displayed up to 18 “aggression symptoms,” including a propensity for “physical cruelty to people,” “cruelty to animals,” and “forced sex.” Grand-theft lunch money is the least of these kids’ crimes. They’re more than bullies; sociopaths might be a better descriptor. Or rapists.

Second, the “aggressive youths” never inflicted any pain (real or imagined) on other people during the experiment. Whatever enjoyment or dismay they felt came from viewing a set of photographs depicting, for example, someone stepping on somebody else’s toe. So the brain-imaging data may tell us what it’s like to watch a bully but not necessarily what it’s like to be a bully.

Third, the brain scans themselves are open to interpretation. Compared with the controls, the bad kids showed activity in a pair of brain structures called the amygdala and the ventral striatum. The study’s lead author takes that to mean they were getting off on toe-stomping. But neuropunditry watchers may remember that increased blood flow to the amygdala can be tricky to interpret, as it’s been associated with a wide range of emotions. In practice, an fMRI signal in that nutty brain area is more often taken as a sign of anxiety than enjoyment.

The astute blogger Neurocritic points out that the teenagers in the study showed other responses that don’t quite fit with the theory that bullies like bullying. A look at the original research paper reveals the “bullies” also showed activity in areas related to the sensation of pain, like the anterior insula and somatosensory cortex. So if the aggressive youths appeared to be experiencing more pleasure than the control group, they may have been feeling more empathy, too.

OK, OK: Why am I wasting time on a study so lame that it got a write-up in the Onion? Hasn’t this whole fMRI backlash routine gotten a bit passé?

In this case, I’m less interested in the science than the lamebrained science journalism. The New York Times did something worse than covering a nonstory—it shamelessly promoted it. Take another look at Parker-Pope’s write-up, and now read the University of Chicago press release that went out the week before. Three entire paragraphs (including an extended quote) make it from the release into the six-paragraph Times post, virtually unchanged. The rest is paraphrase.

It’s no wonder she missed some potential flaws in the bullying study. A quick look through the archives suggests that Parker-Pope makes a regular practice of touching up university-wire stories without any discernable reporting of her own. On Oct. 29, she posted on a study of stress and decision-making in seniors. The material was reworded slightly, but all of it—including the quotes—had previously appeared in a USC press release. In this piece from Nov. 4 on a study showing that children are safest under their grandparents’ care, she acknowledges pulling a quote from a Johns Hopkins release but never acknowledges that the rest of the information she cites also appears in that release. Same goes for a Nov. 10 post on how drivers respond to speed limits, which consists entirely of information that appeared in a release from the Purdue University news service.

I don’t mean to suggest it’s a crime to take material from a press release. But it’s certainly lazy, and there’s every reason to believe that Parker-Pope knows better. In her short tenure at Well (and in her previous gigs), she’s shown a knack for smart and skeptical science coverage: Posting on a study of how television affects teen pregnancy rates, she goes out of her way to complicate the sexed-up angle from the press release. Indeed, two years ago, she informed the Columbia Journalism Review that, “as reporters, we should never take anything at face value. I think a mistake that a lot of people might make is to read the press release. I almost never read the press release.”

Back in 2006, Parker-Pope was speaking as a columnist for the Wall Street Journal, not as the New York Times blogger she is today. Reached by phone, she appeared to temper her previous statements: “The blog is providing information from a variety of sources, and sometimes those include press releases. … I try to make that clear and also to provide links to the original [journal] articles so the readers have all the information.” She professes a deep commitment to transparency, both online and in print: “I really believe that if we’re quoting from a press release, we have to tell readers that.” She does acknowledge that the “bully” post, at least, was an oversight: “This one, I’m kicking myself.”

(After our conversation, Parker-Pope adjusted the posts on bullies and decision-making in seniors by adding the phrase “in a press release” to the paragraphs in which the study authors are quoted. She doesn’t attribute any of the other material in the posts, nor does she flag her changes for readers.)

The Times has no official policy on using press releases, but spokeswoman Catherine Mathis says in an e-mail that it “would not meet our standard” to base an entire article on one without attribution to a company or organization. A draft set of guidelines for the newspaper’s blogs includes the following dictum: “In the integrated newsroom, standards online and print are the same. What’s different in a blog is voice and tone.” That said, someone who attended a Times staff meeting in May of 2007 did tell Gawker that executive editor Bill Keller had warned, “We can’t let our reverence for quality become a straitjacket in new media.”

I can certainly appreciate the time pressures faced by Web journalists, and I’m OK with the idea that standards might be a smidge lower online. (You may have heard that Slate doesn’t do as much fact-checking as The New Yorker.) But at the risk of sounding like one of those straitjacketed print-media types, that extra leeway shouldn’t preclude a reporter from performing her most basic responsibilities. Like calling your own sources. Or writing your own copy.

There are better ways for a newspaper to peddle canned content. On Nov. 7, ran an unbylined version of the bullying story straight off the PR wire; there, at least, the source was disclosed clearly at the bottom of the page. (Which reminds me: The Washington Post Co. pays my salary.) That’s better than a passing attribution of a single quote. Better still would be a clearly marked link to the original press release. If staff cuts on the science desks have made this kind of journalism into a necessary evil, readers should be kept informed.

I’d venture to say that if we slid Tara Parker-Pope into a scanner, we’d discover she has some sympathy for my point of view. (“In a chilling finding, the researchers found reporters appear to enjoy reporting …”) Here’s another of her aphorisms from the CJR interview: “Just because we have 15 seconds,” she says, “or 800 words or whatever the amount of time we have to tell our story, we still have to get it right.” So true.