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Media Sensationalization of Social Science Research: Social Networking Insites

by Aryn Karpinski - May 28, 2009

Pros and cons exist in publicizing findings from exploratory conference presentations such as posters. Studies have shown that media reports about conference presentations of exploratory work, predominantly in medicine, often omit basic study facts and limitations. The social sciences appear to suffer enormously from media misreporting. The current commentary discusses this topic and the general media sensationalization of exploratory social science research, using one such study that examined the relationship between Facebook and academic performance as a case example. The commentary also notes the media and research community’s response to the example exploratory study and media hype, and provides suggestions for future research acquired from a graduate researcher’s venture into the field of technology and education, specifically social-networking sites and education. Although conclusiveness may never be attained, the impact of social networking sites on college student life should be investigated comprehensively through respectful cross-discipline collaboration and collegiality between novice and experienced researchers.

The media has an itchy trigger finger when it comes to reporting scientific findings, even at the most basic, exploratory, conference-presentation-before-publication level. Studies predominantly in medicine have shown that news stories about conference presentations of exploratory work often omit basic study facts (e.g., sample size, design), and more importantly limitations (Woloshin & Schwartz, 2006). However, it is common practice for researchers (across disciplines) to present their preliminary work at national and regional conferences (Bressler, Liesegang, Schachat, & Albert, 2004). The present commentary discusses three major topics: (1) The general media sensationalization of exploratory social science research and the recent sensationalization of one such study (i.e., “A Description of Facebook Use in Undergraduate and Graduate Students”; Karpinski & Duberstein, 2009), (2) The media and research community’s response to the exploratory study and media hype, and (3) Suggestions for future research acquired from a graduate researcher’s foray into the expansive field of technology, specifically social-networking sites (SNS), and education. These final suggestions are assembled from the flood of e-mails, phone calls, interviews, and blog posts from genuinely interested professionals in academia, research, and the working world who have begun the necessary dialogue about the impact of SNS on college student life.

Conferences are an important venue for researchers, especially those new to the profession or field, to share their methods, results, and initial findings with their peers and seasoned veterans. Networking with the aforementioned people and the feedback garnered from conference presentations of preliminary work may result in substantial revisions and restructuring of the original study (Bressler et al., 2004). The original study may pale in comparison to the modified and improved final product, with many presentations never reaching publication status (Scherer, Dickersin, Langenberg, 1994; Weale, Edwards, Lear, & Morgan, 2006). Therefore, more caution may be needed in disseminating exploratory findings, as conference presentations can be the first step in a long process. This is especially true for reporting social science research findings. The field appears to suffer egregiously at the hands of the media at multiple levels such as the oversimplification of findings, premature closure and unjustified certainty in results, inadequate scrutiny of quality and expertise, and biased selection from the range of social science, to name a few (Weiss, 1985).

Although more caution may need to be implemented in how the media handles exploratory research at scientific meetings, some argue that the media should not refrain from reporting this information, as it is usually subject to some peer review. The peer review process at conferences may not be as thorough compared to the process in reviewing manuscripts for scholarly journals, but a basic screening procedure is intact to ensure quality work that may benefit further discussion (Schwartz, Woloshin, & Baczek, 2002). Additionally, reporting exploratory findings can stimulate further research in any given area and initiate partnerships that may be important in conducting more rigorous studies.

Others may argue that the media is not entirely to blame, pointing as well to the lack of certainty in reaching conclusions based on social science research findings in general. For example, Weiss (1985) notes that there is an ongoing struggle amid reporters and social scientists between conclusiveness and ambiguity. Perhaps in some disciplines (e.g., Engineering, Chemistry), findings can be reported with some closure. However, this sense of resolution is rarely found in social science research. Weiss (1985) notes, “Social scientists have a sense of continuing inquiry, a realization of the truth in the old cliché that more research is needed” (p. 40). Thus, reporters tend to overemphasize certainty in social science research conclusions, which may be due in part to the sometimes confusing discipline differences in the finality of results.

Media reporting of scientific findings may also be cramped by other concerns, such as the economy. As print media becomes obsolete and journalists and reporters struggle to make headlines, sensationalism used in reporting basic pilot studies may increase. In addition, these hard economic times may result in budget cuts that can impact the number of qualified reporters with scientific knowledge. Timmer (2009) notes, “These economic trends have meant that fewer individuals with training in science journalism are now doing the reporting” This reliance on lesser-trained reporters in science journalism may increase the risk of misreporting complex results (Timmer, 2009). In addition, media is also limited in these difficult economic times by decreases in article space, which are seldom long enough to fully detail the results including the important caveats and limitations.

The latest study to suffer from these multiple procedural and contextual complications is an exploratory study entitled “A Description of Facebook Use in Undergraduate and Graduate Students” (Karpinski & Duberstein, 2009). In August 2008, my colleague and I submitted an abstract to the American Educational Research Association (AERA) 2009 conference in San Diego using preliminary findings from a survey about Facebook use. The abstract was accepted for presentation in a new member poster session for Division C - Learning and Instruction, Section 7: Technology Research. The title of the poster was non-sensational, and was intended to alert others to the exploratory and descriptive nature of the study. The media communications department at The Ohio State University read the abstract in the AERA program book and requested an interview with me. I happily obliged, unaware of the potential for this small, exploratory study to become a media frenzy and subsequent nightmare for someone at the graduate level who has never had this kind of exposure.

The media’s interest in hot topics that can render webpage hits, sell magazines and newspapers, and generate buzz propelled this little exploratory study to instant fame. Although the original press release delineated the exploratory nature of the study (Grabmeier, 2009), in two weeks’ time, the study’s findings were unrecognizable as reported by reputable media outlets (e.g., TIME – “What Facebook Users Share: Lower Grades”; Hamilton, 2009) and random technology blogs (e.g., CNET News, Technically Incorrect – “Facebook Messes Up Your GPA”; Matyszczyk, 2009). Not only did the media seriously distort the preliminary findings of this properly identified descriptive and exploratory study, but these distortions led to severe ridicule and personal attacks against the authors amongst the inner-circle of technology and Internet researchers.

The unfortunate consequences of media misrepresentation of research can lead even the heartiest researcher to retreat into a cave. Baron-Cohen (2009) notes that misreporting scientific findings can potentially impact researchers' behavior. For example, the author states, “If their work is misrepresented, they may withdraw into the lab rather than risk having to spend hours setting the record straight” (p. 26). These consequences are similarly applicable if those in the research community are discourteous and opportunistic, instead of fostering an environment of learning and growth by providing constructive criticism for those who may wish to join their academic community.

For young professionals engaging in the exploratory end of research, the lesson may seem obvious – do not dip your toe in other researchers’ pools. Conversely, for graduate student researchers interested in bridging the gaps between specializations and disciplines and collaborating with more experienced professionals in any one area, dipping your toe in other researchers’ pools should be encouraged. Therefore, instead of abruptly dismissing novice researchers’ interests, and in the name of demonstrating how one can have a professional dialogue across experience hierarchies, some suggestions for continued research in this area are provided in the closing paragraphs.

SNS research is expansive, and when combined with education research and other fields of study, the possibilities are seemingly endless. The aforementioned exploratory study’s findings that Facebook use is related to academic performance brings into question the many third variables involved. As a result of the media blitz surrounding the Facebook study, Psychology researchers e-mailed me about the potential for personality research; Sociology researchers contacted me about school community; Neurologists phoned me about multi-tasking and negative performance outcomes. Current research in SNS, not solely Facebook, has examined many of the aforementioned topics, but not in conjunction with academic performance. For instance, personality variables such as narcissism and the Five Factor Model (i.e., five broad dimensions of personality such as openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism; Costa & McCrae, 1985; Costa & McCrae, 1992) have been examined in relation to Facebook and SNS use (Buffardi & Campbell, 2008; Ross, Orr, Sisic, Arseneault, Simmering, & Orr, 2009), which could be extended to further probe the Facebook/academic performance research topic.

Because of the pessimistic nuance based on the exploratory results of the current study (i.e., a negative relationship between Facebook use and academic performance), many passionate proponents of technology and Internet use in education were quick to e-mail their thoughts to me about the positives. Administrators and faculty could potentially use Facebook to communicate with students about course information, homework, discussion topics, and much more. In fact, Facebook has developed a number of applications that are education-oriented such as “Flashcards,” where a student can create digital flash cards to study, or “Get Homework Help,” which aims to get students connected with tutors and other students to help with assignments (Jacobs, 2008). Thus, future research should not only focus on the differences between Facebook users and nonusers as in the current poster, but also how educators can capitalize on the students’ SNS thirst to enhance educational experiences.

Finally, to understand the relationship between Facebook and academic performance at the university level more specifically, many researchers and professionals have communicated their thoughts to me in hopes of improving the methodology and statistics of future research in this area. Disregarding the myriad of third variables and confounds and focusing exclusively on the main variables of interest, the measurement and conceptualization of Facebook use and academic performance in college should be an important consideration. How should Facebook use be defined? Dichotomously (i.e., Yes/No)? Should a timeline of use be examined (e.g., When was the account adopted)? Should use be specified in minutes/hours per day/week? If time on Facebook is the flavor, how can this be measured as accurately as possible? Some researchers have suggested using diary studies where students track how much time is spent on Facebook and detail their activities (e.g., academic or social activities), or using timers to investigate a sample of students’ login and logout attempts in any given period. The measurement of academic performance is equally convoluted.

Although this story may serve as a cautionary tale to graduate students beginning their research careers, fear of the media and lack of collegiality should not prevent genuinely interested researchers from beginning at the exploratory end of the research spectrum, which is good practice and should not be dismissed. The questioned relationship between Facebook use – or other SNS – and academic performance is compelling and worthy of further investigation. Passing time and industrial progress will undoubtedly render conclusiveness in this area of research a difficult goal to attain, as newer, potentially ephemeral technological trends “muddy the waters” in this field. Hopefully, novice and experienced researchers alike will read beyond the media manipulation, and continue to investigate the relationship (or lack thereof) between SNS and academic variables through increasingly more rigorous designs, but more importantly, respectful cross-discipline collaboration and compassionate mentoring.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: May 28, 2009
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15642, Date Accessed: 10/26/2021 4:04:38 AM

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About the Author
  • Aryn Karpinski
    Ohio State University
    E-mail Author
    ARYN KARPINSKI is a doctoral student at the Ohio State University.
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