Last year’s controversial abstinence versus contraception study – conducted by Mathematica for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services – drew criticism from "abstinence-only" educators.
Instead of finding fault with Mathematica’s methods, some lambasted the media for allegedly skewing the headlines. Kristen Fyfe, of the Media Research Center, a Virginia-based watchdog group monitoring media bias, cited the Washington Post headline ("Study Casts Doubt on Abstinence-Only programs") and the USA Today headline ("Study: Abstinence Teaching Ineffective") while giving grudging approval of the AP headline ("Study: Abstinence Programs No Guarantee").
Thanks to her blog Fyfe was a guest on some conservative radio programs. In a phone interview Fyfe claims that because liberal media reporters liked the outcome of the study, they did not examine the findings as rigorously as they might have. "Had they done due diligence, and talked to abstinence-only education proponents, they would have learned that these old programs did not reflect current curricula," says Fyfe.
Fyfe also criticized the timing of the report, which came out on a Friday just before a Congressional vote on sex education funds.
She admits, however, that she did not know or ask who chose the supposedly defective programs or who controlled the timing of the report. It turns out that the client controlled the timing, and the client also guided the program choice. Government officials from the Department of Health and Human Services, along with subject experts and Mathematica researchers, deemed the chosen programs as the best available at that time using these criteria: the quality of intervention, how well it was implemented, and its feasibility for conducting random assignments.
Mathematica’s measured response pointed out that most of the uproar was simply misguided, that the study didn’t say what the headlines said it said. "I really do think it’s a two-part story. First, there is no evidence that the programs increased the rate of sexual abstinence," Chris Trenholm, a senior researcher, was quoted as saying. "However, the second part of the story that I think is equally important is that we find no evidence that the programs increased the rate of unprotected sex."