In May 2000 Christina Sommers published a long-form piece on The Atlantic titled "The War Against Boys". Sommers argued that the "crisis" of schools and society favoring boys and harming (or holding back) girls was built on misleading and erroneous research. And that reality was the opposite was true, girls are thriving and boys are falling behind.
How did we reach the conclusion that American girls are in crisis? Sommers writes:
The answer has much to do with one of the American academy's most celebrated women—Carol Gilligan, Harvard University's first professor of gender studies.
In 1990 Gilligan announced that America's adolescent girls were in crisis.
Gilligan offered little in the way of conventional evidence to support this alarming finding. Indeed, it is hard to imagine what sort of empirical research could establish such a large claim. But she quickly attracted powerful allies.
Popular writers, electrified by Gilligan's discovery, began to see evidence of the crisis everywhere.
To support her point of research misrepresenting the "crisis", Sommer discusses several self-esteem studies commissioned by the American Association of University Women (AAUW).
In 1991 the association announced the disturbing results, in a report titled Shortchanging Girls, Shortchanging America: "Girls aged eight and nine are confident, assertive, and feel authoritative about themselves. Yet most emerge from adolescence with a poor self-image, constrained views of their future and their place in society, and much less confidence about themselves and their abilities."
The AAUW quickly commissioned a second study, How Schools Shortchange Girls.This one, conducted by the Wellesley College Center for Research on Women and released in 1992, focused on the alleged effects of sexism on girls' school performance
The studies received national coverage:
With great fanfare How Schools Shortchange Girls was released to the remarkably uncritical media. A 1992 article for The New York Times by Susan Chira was typical of coverage throughout the country. The headline read "Bias Against Girls is Found Rife in Schools, With Lasting Damage." The piece was later reproduced by the AAUW and sent out as part of a fundraising package. Chira had not interviewed a single critic of the study.
Sommers connected with Susan Chira and asked her why alternative opinions were not sought:
She explained that she (Chira) had been traveling when the AAUW study came out, and was on a short deadline. Yes, perhaps she had relied too much on the AAUW's report. She had tried to reach Diane Ravitch, who had then been the former U.S. assistant secretary of education and was a known critic of women's-advocacy findings, but without success.
Six years later the Times ran another piece on the study:
Six years after the release of How Schools Shortchange Girls, The New York Times ran a story that raised questions about its validity. This time the reporter, Tamar Lewin, did reach Diane Ravitch, who told her, "That  AAUW report was just completely wrong. What was so bizarre is that it came out right at the time that girls had just overtaken boys in almost every area. It might have been the right story twenty years earlier, but coming out when it did, it was like calling a wedding a funeral.... There were all these special programs put in place for girls, and no one paid any attention to boys."
But it was too late, the misleading crisis had become mainstream and drove policy decisions:
Categorizing girls as an "under-served population" on a par with other discriminated-against minorities, Congress passed the Gender Equity in Education Act in 1994. Millions of dollars in grants were awarded to study the plight of girls and to learn how to counter bias against them.
This chain of events is one example of the danger of unquestioningly accepting headlines and studies. Particularly when it comes to sensitive issues such as gender disparities. We should strive to question the studies, question who benefits, validate the journalist did their research prior to accepting the conclusions as irrevocably true.
Yet isn't that the fundamental responsibility of the media? To share facts, to pull in alternative perspectives, to present an unbiased and comprehensive story? Citizens can't be expected to fact check every published news article. Who has time for that?
And yet reality is journalists are people. People on deadline, people with ulterior motives. People who don't hear back from potential sources. Based on the news outlets we choose to read, we trust the judgment of the journalist and editor. We trust that they are presenting the story in the best (unbiased) way they can knowing what they know. But that trust should come with some skepticism.
The media's primary job is summed up succinctly in one sentence by political commentator Ben Shapiro:
The job of the media is to defend the public from untruth.
Unless you have complete trust in your media sources, continue to question. Dig deeper. There can be much more to the story than the headline's conclusions.