Put on Your Editor’s Cap

Imagine you work for Reuters and this study crosses your desk.

Conclusion.The key factor associated with acquisition of HPV was lifetime number of sex partners, whereas circumcision was the most significant determinant for clearance of any HPV infection and oncogenic HPV infection.

You deem that worthy of a write-up. How do you write that up? If you highlighted the greatest risk factor the study identified, you’d be thinking like a responsible journalist. You’d also be unqualified to work at Reuters, apparently, as the story (run by Fox News) shows:

Men who are circumcised may be more protected against persistent infection with the virus that causes genital warts, a new study suggests.

The study, which followed 285 men ages 18 to 44, found that among those who became infected with the human papillomavirus (HPV), circumcised men were more likely to have their immune systems “clear” the virus by the end of the 18-month study.

When it came to the risk of acquiring the virus in the first place, the biggest risk factor was having a large number of lifetime sex partners, the researchers report in The Journal of Infectious Diseases.

The story waits until the third paragraph to present the largest finding, and then it’s only as an afterthought. The key lesson we’re supposed to take is that circumcision appeared to protect men. That’s bias, a conclusion seeking support.

Yet, notice how the article must clarify. The risk is identified “among those who became infected”. Isn’t that a useful key? We know how men (and women) can protect themselves. Don’t sleep with lots of people. Wear a condom. Actions have consequences.

If adult men want to use this study to justify circumcising themselves, I don’t care. I think it’s unnecessary because there are better ways to protect themselves. Someone else might think differently. But that’s not the point of headlines like this. It seeks to push infant circumcision. “See, it has medical benefits,” proponents claim. It’s propaganda wrapped in the appearance of good intentions.

2 thoughts on “Put on Your Editor’s Cap”

  1. I think it’s also interesting to point out that little attention is paid to the often better alternatives. For example, they made no mention of the HPV vaccine or that it is likely to be approved for boy and men this year.

  2. I wonder how (or if) they reported this study, which showed slightly higher rates of HPV among circumcised men:
    Two other studies have shown that circumcised men report, or were found to have, a higher prevalence of genital warts than uncircumcised men:

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