Self-fulfilling Prophecies

We admonish students to take great care when they’re doing research to avoid self-fulfilling prophecies.

Take my field, mass media, as an example.

Critics and scholars have been interested for ages in how media influence attitudes and behaviors. One story that grabbed headlines has been described as an epidemic heavily influenced by the media.

It’s car surfing.

Car surfing involves riding atop a moving car. You’ll find many posts on YouTube, usually with the surfer falling off and breaking body parts. Obviously it’s a dangerous way to spend the weekend.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, car surfing hasn’t reach epidemic proportions. In a 9-year study, the CDC found that about 99 people—typically teens—were injured or died in car surfing accidents. Compare that to the number who die in car crashes every day in the US and it’s staggering: more than 100 fatalities per day.

But car surfing is hardly the fault of media.

While it’s true that you can watch videos of teens shredding with abandon, it’s a big leap to blame YouTube or news reports on teen stupidity.

That’s why we counsel students to take care with their research projects: you can invent connections that don’t exist because you’re intent to prove a point.

Some news stories about car surfing draw a link between the videos and teen behavior, thus fulfilling the prophecy that media are powerful. In fact, there aren’t data to support the link. But it makes a nice, tidy package of a news story to believe it’s true.


About Cynthia Coleman Emery

Professor and researcher at Portland State University who studies science communication, particularly issues that impact American Indians. Dr. Coleman is an enrolled citizen of the Osage Nation.
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