This story is still spreading like wildfire. People are sharing it via email, Facebook and Twitter. At natural hair blogs, comment threads are long and emotional. As one of my editors remarked, this topic is very engaging. It is and for good reason. This story is so relevant to so many women, and I include myself in that number. I mean, I AM the woman in this story. Im African-American, Ive been diagnosed with uterine fibroids; and Ive had my fair share of chemical relaxers.
But as I followed the links about this story, some red flags began to wave, and Im not talking about the science. I addressed all of those critiques in my previous post. No, I realized that the news sources I visited, first The Root and BET, then links to a number of blogs and online magazines were eerily familiar. They sounded similar, using the exact same wording. They all made the same mistakes in coverage.
So, I began to wonder, how did all of this get started.
Here is what I found.
On Thursday, February 16, 2012 a local Fox News affiliate in Houston, Texas aired this story: Hair Today, Tumors Tomorrow? By all accounts and Google searching this is where it all started.
The news program did a follow-up the next day: Study Causes Hair Scare about Tumors Fox News Houston, Texas February 17, 2012.
Soon, the Internet sites geared to African-American Women were all over this story. And rightly so. This is a topic that is very relevant to its readership.
A very popular natural hair blog, Black Girl With Long Hair introduced the story Relaxers Linked to Uterine Fibroid Tumors? On Monday, February 20, 2012. This post links directly back to Houston FOX News story.
On Tuesday, February 21, two powerhouse online magazines for Black Women picked up the story, at almost the same time.
Clutch Magazine an African American women magazine and the new face of the urban it girl ran this story: Study: Relaxers Linked to Uterine Fibroids and Early Puberty.
Madame Noire - the Black women's lifestyle guide for the latest in black hair care, relationship advice, fashion trends, black entertainment news and parenting tips ran this:
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 whats 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, Ive 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, its 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.
Additional coverage included:
New Study Links Relaxers To Fibroids by African Health Magazine on Thursday, February 23, 2012. This was another BlackDoctor.org based piece
New Study Links Relaxers To Fibroids at BET on Thursday, February 23, 2012 was actually provided to BET by BlackDoctor.org.
Study: Perms Linked to Fibroids at The Root February 28, 2012. They got the story from BET, which they directly link to in the piece. This is where I started my journey down the rabbit hole.
Hair Relaxers and Fibroids My Fox Philly did a segment on their local news on Wednesday, February 29, 2012.
Can Hair Relaxers Cause Uterine Fibroids? appeared on Essence.com Friday, March 2, 2012. This piece looks to be a modified version of the piece by BlackDoctor.org or Madame Noire.
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 wasnt 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.
Remarkably, I found the best journalism around this piece at Curly Nikki - a natural hair blog - Hair Relaxers and Fibroids?- An Update from Dr. Wise on Tuesday, February 22, 2012. From what I can tell, this article was the ONLY site that actually caught up with the researcher to inquire about the study. I was glad to see that the lead author clarified points of the coverage of the study, most immediately that this study did not find an early puberty onset in girls using chemical relaxers. It also included a break down of the science of the original study. Curly Nikki had her husband read the articles and relay his opinions and pros and cons of the original study.
For me, this was beautiful confirmation that good science news can be shared through a variety of mediums. Im really thinking of that Science writing for Womens Magazines harder, now. But I am sad that her version of the story didnt get picked up.
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. Its 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 its time for you host professional science journalists in your organizations.