Anatomy of a Smear: The Religious Right vs. the American Psychiatric Association

People tend to assume claims are true if they confirm something they already believe -- and the more fervent the belief, the easier they are to convince.
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Right-wing fundamentalist "news" site Charisma News published an accusation that the American Psychiatric Association has reclassified sex with children "as a sexual orientation or preference instead of a disorder."

They said this was done in the Diagnostic and Statistic Manual of Mental Disorders, but the ONLY source actually cited was "Sandy Rios, cultural expert and talk show host of the American Family Radio network." Rios compared this to when "the APA declared homosexuality an 'orientation' under tremendous pressure from homosexual activists in the mid-70s." The AFA is a notorious anti-gay hate group.

The problem with the claim is that it just isn't true. Charisma News just took the AFA as a legitimate source, which it isn't. Religious fundamentalists believe AFA legitimate simply because it tells them what they want to hear. Truth and accuracy has nothing to do with it.

After word of this accusation spread, comments came in repudiating it. Charisma News slightly backtracked admitting, "The AFA cannot substantiate its research on this issue, though many agree with its interpretation." One has to wonder what kind of "research" this was, if they had no ability to substantiate it.

Charisma News (CN) tried to give some substance to the story with a second story, but only made matters worse. They wrote that the AFA pointed "to a shock announcement from the American Psychiatric Association," but no such announcement was pointed to, nor does it exist.

According to CN "The AFA's Cindy Roberts told Charisma News that its public relations firm, Hamilton Strategies, conducted the initial research on its claim. The PR firm has not responded to our requests for more information." Hamilton Strategies is run by fundamentalist Christians and is a PR outlet for right wing and fundamentalist groups; it is not a research center. It appears that AFA is willing to throw their PR people under the bus for this debacle.

Who exactly would use a PR firm as a source for research, especially if they were interested in facts, not spin?

CN makes it appear there is truth to the accusation by pointing out that the conservative American Spectator had reported on it, and cited "a University of Southern California report." American Spectator did no research either.

It merely repeated a claim by "Father Z," a conservative Catholic priest named John Zuhlsdorf. Father Z blogged, "a goal of the homosexualists includes elimination of age of consent" and cited the alleged USC report as proof.

What did USC actually say? Nothing. There is no USC report. What exists is a student-run on-line "news" page, Neon Tommy. This is hardly a "university report."

Neon Tommy is not a professional or academic site but more akin to a student-run campus newspaper where most articles are written by amateurs hoping to become professionals. It is not a primary source for news.

Neon Tommy appears to be ground zero for this unwarranted accusation. They published an article by "staff reporter" Hannah Malayao. But "staff reporter" on a student-run publication doesn't mean much. It didn't when I was on the university paper, though most the writers thought themselves one notch below Woodward and Bernstein.

Malayao never actually quoted the APA or the DSM, she simply asserts there are now "endless sexual orientations" and sex with children is another.

Without a citation it can't be traced further back. A seasoned journalist would quote an actual source, or at least link to a press release to substantiat her claim. But, Malayao is not a seasoned journalist. She's barely a college student, only graduating from high school a few months ago and starting USC a few weeks ago. She hasn't even had time to finish one journalism course.

Malayao's original piece is shoddy, opening with an unsubstantiated, sensationalistic claim. She can be forgiven -- she's a freshman in college, most likely away from home for the first time. Until a few weeks ago her life probably centered on her BFFs, not journalism.

The student editors at Neon Tommy should have caught this, but again they are students, not professionals.

The real problem starts when adults get hold of inaccurate claims and spread them as true, because of their political agendas. Father Z used it to slam gay people, never telling readers his only source was an 18-year-old girl just starting at university. Instead, he attributed it to the University of Southern California itself.

By the time Charisma News reports matters there is a "University of Southern California report." At no point in this chain did anyone bother to actually contact the APA and ask them if it were true. Charisma News did so only after people left angry comments.

People tend to assume claims are true if they confirm something they already believe -- and the more fervent the belief, the easier they are to convince. The Religious Right assumes certain things true. Anything substantiating these beliefs is assumed accurate and reported as such -- no matter how flimsy or implausible. Of course, they aren't the only people guilty of this. But, they are the ones caught out badly this time around.

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