Friday, February 5

Depressing Readers: Accuracy Matters

Dr. John Grohol, CEO of Psych Central, wrote a noteworthy post for communicators and journalists — accuracy can mean the difference between the Internet causing depression or the Internet attracting depressed people.

After Leeds University released a study that found people who spend a lot of time browsing the net are more likely to show depressive symptoms, Grohol wrote that mainstream media did surprisingly well in covering the story. Of seven publications cited, only three did not sensationalize the headline, leading people to believe that the Internet caused depression.

However, there is something remotely troubling in the statistical samplings. Rather than use randomized, controlled groups, the study was conducted using an online questionnaire. According to Grohol's analysis, only 18 of 1,319 self-selected people online meet the criteria for "Internet addiction," which was a key element in some conclusions drawn by the researchers.

The test only included one validation study and the researchers helped give the story life with subjective comments that suggest such a link could be negative. In his post, Grohol points out that subsequent studies could possibly reveal the Internet might even be good for depressed people in that it provides some outlet for social connections where no outlet might exist.

What conclusions can you draw from communication research?

How many surveys and polls do communicators, journalists, and educators rely on despite questionable data or subjective conclusions? What about your organization? Are you creating a perception bubble and preaching to the choir? Or is your organization catering too much to its squeaky wheels? How much do you really know about what you know?

One Dow Jones post recently took note of how different social networks might lead you to have very different impressions of Dan Brown, author of The Da Vinci Code. Specifically, it suggests there is primarily praise from his 97,000 Facebook fans. There is more criticism from several groups of writers, who are unlikely to be avid Dan Brown readers (hat tip: Sara Springmeyer).

But what does that mean? And does it account for the cultures of these communities? Evidence suggests that when people comment using their own social media identities, they are concerned about two things: their own appearance and group acceptance. As a result, such influences do not always amount to reliable crowd-sourced data.

There are other examples too. David Fleet recently questioned a survey that suggested journalists prefer bulk emails. Tamara Lytle included the idea in an article that warns companies away from cliche crisis communication plans. American physicist Richard Feynman frequently spoke and wrote about the need to continually rethink scientific models of the past to ensure future theories were not built on flawed studies.

So what can a communicator do? The most obvious answer is to continually re-verify data. The less obvious answer is to approach research from an objective perspective as opposed to pursuing a hypothesis that leads to validation and not verification. After all, the difference between two words is as large as the Internet causing depression or attracting depressed people.

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