Ideological bias in the promotion of liberal attitudes by The Age
Research contrary to fashionable opinion on the effects of divorce
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Below are two letters I faxed to The Age (Melbourne Newspaper) in November 1996 when I was concerned about their distortion of research results on the affects of divorce, apparently to promote politically correct attitudes. They gave a front page lead to a report of some research which purported to show no serious consequences of divorce for children. The next day they published an editorial reinforcing fashionable attitudes favouring divorce and the rights of individuals to pursue their own interests without fear of the social consequences. I had meanwhile drawn their attention to a recently published overview of research which showed the opposite to be the general affect found in Australian studies, but they ignored this information.
Fax to "The Age" 28 November 1996
The prominent front page treatment you gave to the report headed "Divorce found to leave few scars on children" could be very misleading if readers generally concluded that divorce has no serious consequences for children, especially when the research you reported is described as "the first comprehensive study on the impact of divorce on children". In the light of a recent review of 25 Australian research projects which was published in The Australian Psychologist, November 1996, by Brian Rodgers of the Australian National University, which found many serious long term consequences, I wonder how much this kind of reporting and editorial prominence is ideologically inspired, although the research study itself might help to further our understanding of some aspects of the problem.
In his analysis of Australian research results Rodgers found that:
Australian studies with adequate samples have shown parental divorce to be a risk factor for a wide range of social and psychological problems in adolescence and adulthood, including poor academic achievement, low self esteem, psychological distress, delinquency and recidivism, substance use and abuse, sexual proclivity, adult criminal offending, depression, and suicidal behaviour. There is insufficient information to draw a conclusion about difficulties earlier in childhood. The underlying causes of these problems are likely to be similar to those identified in other countries: families broken by divorce have higher rates of alcohol and substance abuse and other psychiatric morbidity; children are more likely to be subject to conflict, hostility, and neglect; and in some instances, children are victims or witnesses of physical and sexual abuse. Similar adversity may arise in blended families, and these have a higher dissolution rate than first marriages. One parent families (particularly of lone mothers) have the added burden of socioeconomic hardship.
While acknowledging that what happens after divorce can be a major factor and that possible benefits can come from divorce, Rodgers concluded, "There is no scientific justification for disregarding the public health significance of marital dissolution in Australia, especially with respect to mental health."
Fax to "The Age" 29 November 1996
Why did you ignore my Fax yesterday drawing attention to a large scale review of Australian research on the effects of divorce on children, and then go ahead a publish an editorial which repeated assumptions which that research shows to be false?
The review (and meta-analysis) of many research projects by Bryan Rodgers published in the November 1996 issue of The Australian Psychologist explicitly addresses the claims you made about differences between Australian and US results and finds those claims not to be supported by the evidence from 25 Australian studies. The abstract of the Rodgers article begins:
Several commentators have proposed that overseas research on the adverse sequelae of parental divorce is not applicable to Australia. Arguments supporting this are critically assessed and rejected.
Please see yesterday's Fax for a summary of results.
You might at least have examined the Rodgers article yourselves and then have acknowledged that there are strong scientific claims to a different point of view to that which you chose to promote.
Was I not correct in thinking that your treatment of the research project you reported yesterday was due to the fact that you have your own ideologically inspired agenda? Did you not set it up for your editorial? Have you not mislead your readers as you attempt to shape public opinion to reinforce a particular set of values?
I am not seeking publication of this letter but a correction of your mistakes.
David Beswick (Professor Emeritus)
Note: The Opinion Editor of The Age phoned later to say that he had received the faxes and had telephoned Bryan Rodgers to ask him to write an opinion piece. It was not clear whether the editorial writers had seen what I sent, but it had been made available to them. An article by Rodgers and a colleague was published about a week later.
On 25 May 1998 The Age published an article by Robert Manne Why Australia's cultural orthodoxy must be resisted defending Betinna Arndt against similarly distorted reporting and an attack on her by the ABC's Media Watch program for her use of research on the effects of divorce in the US.
For a later note to this topic, which has since been treated in a more balanced manner by The Age, the following appear in the same paper on 13 February 2003. DB Feb 03
Conflict lasts beyond divorce: study
February 13 2003
By Carol Nader
Children of bitterly divorced couples perceive the telephone as a "weapon of attack" in their parents' continuing post-marital battle.
Despite being distressed by their parents' long-distance rows, they see them as being based on "trivial" matters and do not understand the underlying issues at their heart.
"(The parents) are not living together now, but they use the phone as a weapon to attack each other," said director of the Family Centre at the University of Queensland, Patricia Noller. "We have this idea that conflict stops at divorce. What we are finding is it doesn't."
Researchers have analysed the attitudes of children to their divorced parents and the effects of the divorce on the children's psyches. They interviewed more than 500 children from more than 300 families, divorced and intact.
They found that even though the marriage may have ended, the disharmony continued.
One child was quoted as saying: "One night they stayed on the phone for four hours just arguing." Another said: "They don't see each other now, they just scream at each other over the phone."
Finances emerged as a popular issue to arouse arguments. Many fathers also resented their children making plans on "his weekend".
Divorced couples are also more likely to have conflict with their children, and the children are more likely to have a volatile relationship with each other. A desire to seek comfort in each other is fused with hostility.
"Sibling relationships are really important to them, so that even if they're conflicted they're also very nurturing and supporting," Professor Noller said.
Children of divorced couples are more anxious about entering long-term relationships. They also have a higher risk of economic hardship.
"Growing up in an unhappy family may result in deficits from which children never completely recover," the study says.
The findings were presented yesterday at the Australian Institute of Family Studies conference.
The conference also heard that couples who live together before marriage have a higher risk of divorce.
This may spark alarm given that in 2001, 72 per cent of marriages were preceded by cohabitation, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics.
Senior research adviser at the Australian Institute of Family Studies, David de Vaus, said that, based on recent data, direct marriages were "significantly more likely to survive" than those preceded by cohabitation.
Of almost 6500 people surveyed in various studies, the survival rates 10 years after marriage were 83 per cent and 71 per cent respectively. After 20 years, it was 68 per cent and 55 per cent.
Associate Professor de Vaus said it was uncertain whether the higher risk was due to pre-existing attitudes towards marriage and divorce or "any negative impact that the experience of cohabitation itself may have had on marital stability".
He said that as cohabitation became more common, couples may be able to use
the experience to make decisions about whether they should marry.
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