Journalism should take a zero-tolerance approach to publishing false or unverifiable claims
I often ask friends – when you read an article in mainstream media about a topic in which you have some expertise (about health if you are a doctor for example), how often do you notice that it contains incorrect information? The majority of answers fall at the frequently/very frequently end of the Likert scale we’d be looking at if I were polling rather than chatting. I’m not talking here about serpent-headed aliens, microchip-containing vaccines or stolen elections. But I am talking about mundane examples of misrepresentation through partial presentation of the facts and fabrication.
I give illustrations from the Guardian newspaper, not because it’s a major culprit but because it isn’t. If the problem is present even in the best, it’s present everywhere. I am a long-time reader of the Guardian and subscriber to its online edition. I value its balanced coverage and regard it as standing head and shoulders above all other daily newspapers in the UK for its reliability and lack of bias. But at times I am left wondering, even in this newspaper, about a particular piece – is this true? How would I know?
On the surface the examples I will give may seem like minor infringements, but unreliable reporting in any part of the paper can lead to lack of trust in the reporting of every part of the paper; and we are storing up trouble for the future if journalists following examples such as these come to believe that writing a good story takes precedence over writing an entirely accurate one. There is a fairly simple solution to the problem but before considering it, a few examples.
An article in January 2023 described a survey which was said to have “…found that one in five LGBTQ+ people and more than a third of trans people in the UK have been subjected to attempted conversion…”. As part of an online survey, respondents were asked whether they had ever experienced someone taking any action (my italics) to try to change, cure or suppress their sexual orientation or gender identity. Describing the findings, the phrase “subjected to” appeared in the article headline, in the final sentence and three times in the text. There was no link to the survey report but when I found one it revealed that the campaigning group commissioning the survey has a particular take on what “subjected to” means.
“There must be no “consent” loophole… Conversion practices are abuse and it is not possible to consent to abuse …The definition of conversion practices should include religious practices…”. So examples of what respondents were “subjected to” included “I saw a counsellor…” and “My partner ended our relationship because of God and then the people from church prayed for us to become straight.” For sure, there were quotes about much more unpleasant experiences but even there the reframing was unusual: being beaten up because you’re gay is wrong, but it’s a stretch to call it a conversion practice. There was no indication of a typology of practices or the prevalence of various practices – anything and everything goes towards the headline figure. This strikes me as a long way from what most people understand by the sort of conversion therapy that might be banned by legislation, but you wouldn’t know it from the way the survey was reported.
An article in June last year headed “Brain damage claim leads to new row over electroshock therapy” reported that electro-convulsive therapy (ECT) “…is now the focus of a huge row – which erupted last week – over claims that it can trigger brain damage, that guidelines covering its use are weak and that it is used disproportionately on women and the elderly.” Again there was no reported evidence of a huge row; just a link to a 5 year old Guardian article retailing the same criticisms from the same source as described in the 2022 article. The bust-up seems to have been imagined into life to act as a hook for the otherwise non-story.
Something from the pandemic. An article from January 2021 reported that the “Prince’s Trust happiness and confidence survey produces worst findings in its history”. Three accompanying comments linked the findings to the impact of the pandemic. The findings as reported were literally true (just) but a reading of the whole report gives quite a different picture. In 2021 just 56% of respondents said they were happy about, and 64% said they were confident about, their emotional health. Certainly the lowest on record but the corresponding figures for 2018 were 57% and 65%. In 2021 56% said there were always or often anxious. Again, the highest on record but the figures for the preceding years 2018-2020 were 53%, 54% and 55%. The really big changes have come since 2010 when more than 70% said they were happy and confident about their emotional health and fewer than 20% said they felt anxious or depressed all or most of the time. So a study that shows a decade-long decline in the emotional health of young people is reframed as a story about the impact of the pandemic by the simple expedient of not reporting most of its findings.
In a piece from January this year promoting assisted dying and entitled “Today, 17 people will likely die in unimaginable pain…” regular contributor Polly Toynbee writes, after a warm up about torture chambers, excruciating pain, horror and humiliation, that “On average 17 people a day die in terrible pain that can’t be relieved by even the best palliative care.” The claim is based upon a review undertaken by the Office for Health Economics which, like the research it is reviewing, refers nowhere to the severity of pain but only to “unrelieved pain” much of which, it would be clear to anybody familiar with the clinical scenarios, will not match the descriptions offered. Toynbee’s account of unimaginable pain in end-of-life care comes in fact from her own imagination.
Much of this would be avoided if journalists put a bit more work in – didn’t just recycle press releases and did some of their own fact-checking, aided by basic critical appraisal skills. How would we know if they were doing that? Online encyclopedia Wikipedia, in facing its own questioning about reliability, has developed a policy it describes as Verifiability, not truth. “Verifiability” means that material must have been published previously by a reliable source, cited by the writer and consulted by them. Sources must be appropriate, must be used carefully, and must be balanced relative to other sources.
Citing reliable sources, with a clear statement that the journalist has consulted them, gives readers the chance to check for themselves that the most appropriate authorities have been used, and used well. In fact none of the four examples I give here would be compliant with such a policy. If respectable and respected mainstream media are to maintain their reputation for trustworthiness they need to demonstrate how they manage reliability in their reporting and not just assert that they do. An explicit, and explicitly followed, verifiability policy would be a good start.
A notable feature of the debate about conversion therapy is the degree to which it borrows from, implicitly or explicitly, the language of evidence-based practice. There are other criteria of course: the value-based judgement that all attempts to change sexual orientation or gender identity are wrong, or the pragmatic argument about unintended consequences that might come from poorly drafted legislation. Nonetheless it remains reasonable to ask how good the research evidence is, evaluated independently of these other arguments, in providing grounds for proposed legislation to make it illegal.
An immediate problem is posed by the broadness of the definition usually employed. For example recent government documents describe conversion therapy as…“techniques intended to change someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity. These techniques can take many forms and commonly range from pseudo-psychological treatments to spiritual counselling”. What this means is that the form, content or style of any intervention being evaluated is often unclear, or that widely differing interventions are conflated in a single intervention category.
Another barrier to interpreting research findings is the lack of attention given by many commentaries to the question of consent. For example the nature of consent is not reported in the UK survey of experience conversion therapy: the results show that more people were offered than received therapy, but not how many had consented to or even actively requested it. In a US study of the experiences of men who have sex with men, 40% of respondents who had experienced therapy said the decision to initiate therapy had been “mostly” or “completely” theirs. One might expect that unwanted or coerced intervention would be more likely to have negative outcomes, but the necessary analyses don’t seem to have been undertaken.
Apart from this (rather obvious) observation that coerced intervention may be the more harmful, there is another complication that arises. People who request therapy may be seeking help with a range of relationship problems that are conflated with their sexual orientation or gender identity, making it difficult to tease out the effect of the “conversion” element. The recent publication of Patricia Highsmith’s journals and diaries provides an example if a rather atypical one.
Reported outcomes typically describe one of two domains: change in sexual orientation or gender identity rarely occurs; negative effects for example on mood and sense of self-worth are commoner than in those who have not received therapy. The evidence is by no means clear that such negative effects are universal and by comparison, benefits have been rarely sought or reported.
One exception is a study of LGBQ individuals affiliated with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 720 of whom provided unstructured comments on their experiences in addition to completing structured assessments. The authors note, of these comments “Many found therapy to be a helpful, even life-saving experience. To be able to talk to a knowledgeable professional about a very private concern was salutary. Others reported improved relationships with family or other close associates. Of particular interest was the large number of individuals who reported decreased levels of depression and anxiety and improved feelings of self-worth…For some participants, psychotherapy was clearly unrewarding. As a general rule, however, experiences of harm or iatrogenic distress were much less frequent than reports of benefit.”
Qualitative studies suggest that benefit accrues from aspects of therapy such as discussions about the meaning of the immutable nature of sexual orientation or gender identity or about how to manage any resultant dissonance that arises in the family or religious groups. One interpretation of how attempts at conversion might contribute is that they can act as a sort of behavioural experiment the results of which will depend upon how they are handled. Sensitive discussion can help, while insensitive, coercive or rejecting responses will not. For example, one study of people who had experience of conversion therapy found that those who had subsequently left the religious community for whatever reason were more negative about the effects of therapy than those who had not. One consequence of the definitional problem (see above) is how difficult it is to find much in the research literature that notes whether conversion therapy came with a certain package of other responses or not.
One piece of evidence I have been unable to dig up is what happens next in countries where legislation has already been passed. Has it led to prosecutions? What is the effect on religious communities? In most of the relevant states evangelical Christian groups predominate and it is hard to find anything about other religions. What happens in the madrasa or orthodox Jewish groups? I think we simply don’t know.
In summary – nobody surely would disagree that imposed or coercive attempts to change somebody’s sexual orientation or gender identity are abusive and should not be allowed. However, the proposed UK legislation initially promised to impose a blanket ban on any form of conversion therapy. Even consented or requested therapy, competently delivered as part of a wider discussion of the issues, would be criminalised.
This takes us away from a popular caricature of conversion to a more complicated picture of a type of talking therapy that might be actively sought, with more mixed motivations and with attempts to use effects of the process as the basis for wider exploration. Should that really be criminalised? Such an approach might be argued about on the basis of values rather than evidence, but it is difficult to read the research literature and find unequivocal justification for it.
As things stand, the government has backed off (again) and now says it will not legislate on consented therapy involving adults. It is difficult to believe, of this government, that the decision is one of principle – more likely a response to legal advice about difficulties of drafting the law. Only time will tell what the eventual bill contains. Meanwhile some careful planning of prospective research would be a good idea.
Steven Meanley, PhD, MPH, Sabina A Haberlen, PhD, Chukwuemeka N Okafor, PhD, MPH, Andre Brown, PhD, MPH, Mark Brennan-Ing, PhD, Deanna Ware, MPH, James E Egan, PhD, MPH, Linda A Teplin, PhD, Robert K Bolan, MD, Mackey R Friedman, PhD, MPH, Michael W Plankey, PhD, Lifetime Exposure to Conversion Therapy and Psychosocial Health Among Midlife and Older Adult Men Who Have Sex With Men, The Gerontologist, Volume 60, Issue 7, October 2020, Pages 1291–1302, https://doi.org/10.1093/geront/gnaa069
American Psychological Association, Task Force on Appropriate Therapeutic Responses to Sexual Orientation. (2009). Report of the American Psychological Association Task Force on Appropriate Therapeutic Responses to Sexual Orientation. Retrieved from http://www. apa.org/pi/lgbc/publications/therapeutic-resp.html 9 May 2022
Kate Bradshaw, John P. Dehlin, Katherine A. Crowell, Renee V. Galliher & William S. Bradshaw (2015) Sexual Orientation Change Efforts Through Psychotherapy for LGBQ Individuals Affiliated With the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, 41:4, 391-412, DOI: 10.1080/0092623X.2014.915907