A study linking teen pregnancy to high exposure to sexy media has received enormous play in the media (STATS even linked to it in its vital stats column). But all but one of the mainstream articles online about it that I read – including coverage by USA Today, WebMD, Time, MSNBC, and the Associated Press – failed to note that it’s just as possible that the teens who are already most interested in sex watch the sexed-up shows, rather than sexed-up shows provoking teens’ interest in sexual activity.
Only the Washington Post noted that the connection might not be causal,and this was after the jump in a two-page story online. But the Post didn’t explain why that would matter.
It matters because if teens who are already interested in sex are seeking out hot scenes on TV or elsewhere, reducing access to that media is not going to do much to solve the problem. Solutions like talking to your kids, which is widely recommended for obvious reasons anyway, may still help, of course.
Nonetheless, it’s important for reporters covering science to look at the causal connections in the studies they highlight. Sure, it might make a better story if sexed-up TV makes teens go wild. And you can hedge by using words like “linked” and “associated” to imply cause without saying it. But to help readers and viewers make sense of the world, it’s better to explain the science, rather than add to the hype.