If you asked 100 people at random if they believed abstinence education is effective, most of them would probably say no. Most would probably say that teaching abstinence is “unrealistic”, that it doesn’t work, and that schools should instead be teaching so-called “comprehensive” sex education. A big part of the reason why so many people believe abstinence education is ineffective is because its opponents — which include Planned Parenthood, NARAL, NOW, and other major pro-abortion groups — have done quite a job of convincing people that this is so. And most mainstream media outlets have gone along with getting this message out there. That’s why it’s not uncommon in a story dealing with sex education to see the “failure” of abstinence education reported as an accomplished fact. This is what went through my head recently as I read a Chicago Tribune article about the ongoing debate over sex education programs in the state of Illinois. At one point, the article referred to “a federal report in 2007 [which] found that abstinence programs had little effect on changing teen behavior”. This appeared in the context of a paragraph that otherwise contained statistics. Clearly, the reporter who wrote the story was presenting it as a fact that abstinence education is proven to be ineffective. But is it? Well, no. Not at all. In fact, there’s plenty of evidence to show that abstinence education is effective. And yet this news never seems to find its way into the mainstream media. Notice something else about this “federal report” as it’s referred to in the Chicago Tribune story — not so much what’s there as what isn’t there: The report isn’t identified by name. It’s hard to check up on a source that’s cited in a news story when it isn’t named. This is why a good reporter generally doesn’t cite anonymous sources when writing a news story. Good news reporting has to be transparent. If it isn’t, as far as the public knows, reporters could simply be making up as they go along. I had a hunch that the study referred to here was one conducted by Mathematica Policy Research, which was released in April of that year, and which, since then, has often been cited by opponents of abstinence education programs as the definitive study showing their ineffectiveness. So I e-mailed Tara Malone, the Tribune reporter who wrote the story, and asked her if the Mathematica study was in fact the one she referred to. I also asked why it wasn’t identified by name. She replied:
It was purely a matter of limited space. We had to trim the story substantially in order to fit the allotted space in today’s newspaper.
I’m assuming, based on her response, that it was the Mathematica study. I wrote her again and asked her to clarify explicitly whether it was or not, but have not received a response. I also pointed out that if it was in fact the Mathematica study, that it contained some serious flaws which were pointed out within days of its release, and as a result, that I thought it was odd that the article seemed to take its findings at face value. Among other things, it studied children as young as 3rd grade (not exactly the average age for abstinence programs and/or sexual activity), and researched only four programs (a ridiculously small sample of the several hundred federally funded abstinence education programs). Now, this is of course just one reference to abstinence education in one article out of thousands that are written every year on this topic, but I think it’s a good example of the problem in how the mainstream media deals with it. So be on the lookout the next time you see a news article about the ongoing abstinence education vs. “comprehensive” sex education debate, and pay particular attention to the studies and sources these articles cite. If you have to, do your own research on them, and if the news outlet is printing information that’s misleading or inaccurate, contact the writer and the editor and respectfully point this out.