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Los Angeles Times Gets "Road Rage" Right
June 13, 2006
S. Robert Lichter Ph.D
How to see through the spin on a scientific study

STATS recently criticized the AP and other news organizations for reporting that “road rage” is a mental disorder, based on their misinterpretation of a new study.  The stories left the impression that a rise in rush hour outbursts represented an outbreak of mental illness on the highway. Now the Los Angeles Times has shown how to cover the same study in a manner that avoids all the mistakes made by the earlier stories.

In its June 12 story, “Now, another name for rage,” the Times points out that the study’s focus is on Intermittent  Explosive Disorder (IED), and that road rage is sometimes, but not always, one product of this disorder. As reporter Janet Cromley writes, “true [IED] leaves ganrden-variety freeway altercations in the dust. In fact, even bona fide road rage – which gets the most air time on the nightly news – isn’t how the disorder most often manifests itself.” (Other examples include soccer hooliganism and spousal abuse.)

The story also toned down the fear-mongering tone of earlier reports. It noted both the low and high end estimates of IED incidence, avoiding the classic media mistake of reporting only that “as many as [highest estimate goes here]” people may be affected, thereby exaggerating its impact. In addition, it cited the skepticism of some other scientists, including concerns that this represents nothing more serious than “applying psychological labels to… bad behavior.”

In the end, the Times gives the study its due, pointing out both its strengths and weaknesses, quoting qualified experts on both sides, and giving enough details that readers can decide for themselves what they think about it. If all science reporting looked like this, we’d (happily) be out of a job. Let’s hope some of Janet Cromley’s peers see this story and figure out how they should have done their jobs.


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