Last week the University of Washington issued a study that found that (gasp!) allowing infants to spend too much time in front of the TV can be detrimental to their language development. It's not as if this was real news. After all, for years the American Academy of Pediatrics has recommended that children under the age of 2 to not watch any television.
But since parents can find that advice in the most basic of pediatric guidebooks, UW decided to tart up the PR release for the study, published in the Journal of Pediatrics, by taking a gratuitous swipe at Disney's Baby Einstein brand.
It worked. Media outlets from the Los Angeles Times to NPR, without digging too deep into the actual study, ran the story as if the UW researchers had identified Baby Einstein videos as a specific risk and that parents should avoid buying them.
Disney, in a sharply-worded letter to the university, has demanded a retraction of the press release calling it "grossly unfair, extremely damaging, and, to be blunt, just plain wrong in every conceivable sense."
Say what you will about the Mouse, but here they have a case. What the press release asserts, and the media is reporting, is not what the study actually says. True, the study concludes that infants who watched a lot of TV were developmentally behind those that did not. But, it turns out, the study did not specifically examine Baby Einstein or any other commercial line of baby videos. In what amounts to an incredibly shoddy piece of work, researchers simply asked 1000 parents in Minnesota and Washington State about the amount of time their infants aged 8 to 16 months spend watching videos, playing, being read to, and so on. These same parents were then asked to evaluate their infant's language development. Researchers used no control group nor independent standard of measurement.
The episode is an example of two trends. The first is an overt hostility of the academic establishment to commerce. It's one thing to caution parents about exposing infants to TV, DVDs and passive video images. It's another for a university's PR department to use that study to state that a specific product from a specific company is harmful to babies, especially when the actual study makes no such assertion. If a newspaper or broadcaster had chosen to make this leap independently, it would have been potentially libelous. All you have to do is look at the flap over the lead paint in Mattel's toys to see how explosive a charge like this is.
The second trend derives from the first: the mainstream media's willingness to accept and report spoonfed summaries of university research without question.
My Reason and Heartland colleagues who cover the climate change debate deal with this all the time, but it's become endemic across subject that connect to political issues, from school choice to network neutrality. The LA Times and NPR, not to mention the dozens of other newspapers that picked up the UW story, got it wrong not because the subject was complex, but because they never bothered to check the findings in the report against the way the university's flack was spinning them. Editors should be demanding better.
Update: NPR, to its credit, ran a follow-up report that clarified what the study actually said and pointed out flaws in the study.