When Study Results Have Morally Uncomfortable Implications

February 5, 2009

Now and then I’ll read a news story that discusses the results of a new study on some topic or other, usually in the areas of psychology, sociology, or medicine. Usually the findings are interesting and the news reports of those findings discuss the implcations of the news (such as that a new drug may lead to better cancer therapies). But sometimes the results of the study have personally, socially, or morally uncomfortable implications.

  Example 1: Today’s   Albuquerque Journal (Feb. 5, 2009) newspaper reported the New Mexico Domestic Violence Homicide Review team’s annual report from 2005. It dealt with issues about alcohol use, domestic violence, stalking, and homicide. The third item jumped out at me: "The victim and the alleged killer were separated or separating when the killing took place in 71 percent of the deaths." That is, nearly three-quarters of the domestic violence related homicides happened during or after a separation.

  The Uncomfortable Implication : Statistically, people who are abused by a spouse or partner are actually much safer staying in that situation than getting out of it. If you’re getting beaten and smacked around, leaving your abuser is more likely to end in your death than staying with him or her and putting up with the abuse.

  Example 2: Recent studies published in peer-reviewed medical journals found that fat can be spread from one person to another. One CBS News story (https://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2007/07/25/health/webmd/main3097001.shtml) reported:

The findings, published in

  The New England Journal of Medicine

, show that obesity is "socially contagious." That means that people tend to follow suit when their friends and family become obese or lose weight to ditch obesity. "We find that a person’s chances of becoming obese increase by 57% if they have a friend who becomes obese, 40% if they have a sibling who becomes obese, and 37% if a spouse becomes obese," say researchers Nicholas Christakis, MD, PhD, and James Fowler, PhD.

  The Uncomfortable Implication : If you want to lose weight (or not gain any more), stay away from fat people, because you may get fatter just being around them.

Both of these stories were reported in the mainstream news media, but the journalists were careful not to discuss any implications of the studies and findings. Why? As a society, of course,  we don’t want people to remain in domestic abuse situations, and we don’t want overweight people shunned by others because they are afraid of "catching fat." Of course, there is a danger in simply pulling statistics and factoids out of context. But the above statistics and results are accurate (as far as I know) and the logical implications are accurate (as far as I know). So what should we do, as journalists or as a society, when scientific research produces information whose implications we find uncomfortable?

Should these sorts of findings not be reported, for fear of people acting on their implications?
Should the findings be reported but carefully phrased to avoid explicitly discussing the implications?

What do you think?