More Media Bias: The Bailey and Marlene Zuk Study of 2009Posted: December 8, 2012
My grateful thanks to Mike Pemberton for recently bringing this old one to my attention, by mentioning it in the feedback on this blog.
In 2009, a year-long study was released about homosexual behaviour in the animal kingdom. The study was by Bailey and Marlene Zuk, out of the University of California at Riverside. The media continue to report on this study, even in 2012, and members of the public still cite it. Personally, I find the media reports more interesting than the study itself. In my opinion the various representations of the study are a fascinating demonstration of media bias.
Thanks to people like the gay scientist Bruce Bagemihl, the world already knew that homosexual behaviour has been observed in many animal species. But reports on this ‘new’ study sometimes took claims of prevalence to a new level. Sources such as PHYS.ORG reported (June 16, 2009) that “Same-sex behavior is a nearly universal phenomenon in the animal kingdom …”. As far as I can see, that is an overstatement. To me, ‘universal’ implies total prevalence, IE that approximately all species engage in same-sex sex. Similar wording is used in other reports, EG from the GLBT website pinknews. Most of the reputable news sites were more conservative in their reports though, EG Time magazine (June 19, 2009), who quantified it as “hundreds of animal species — including birds, reptiles, mollusks and, of course, humans — engage in same-gender sexual acts.” POPSCI (October 5, 2011) quantified it as ‘thousands’ rather than hundreds. Yale Scientific (March 14, 2012) was also reserved, using the wording; “… the discoveries of homosexual behavior in more than 10% of prevailing species throughout the world.” Hardly “almost universal”. So what about the study itself – does it state that same-sex sex is a “almost universal” phenomenon in the animal kingdom? The report is available online (http://www.faculty.ucr.edu/~mzuk/Bailey%20and%20Zuk%202009%20Same%20sex%20behaviour.pdf) and nowhere can I see the word ‘universal’ nor similar wording. Rather I found fairly conservative wording, EG “It is clear that same-sex sexual behaviors occur in a wide variety of animal taxa …”. Again, hardly a clear sense of being “almost universal”.
So my conclusion is that some media outlets, arguably misrepresented the study. And that’s why my blog exists – to point this sort of thing out and to balance out the wider conversation.