Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Lies, Damn Lies, and Newspapers

After my last post, I thought I'd turn my attention to the more traditional media.

Yesterday I decided to add some of my less favourite news sites to my Google Reader. My reasoning is that I'd feel more confident criticising newspapers I don't agree with if I actually know what they're saying.

I think that too many people routinely slag off papers like the Mail and Express without ever actually reading them, in much the same way that too many Mail and Express readers denounce whole communities of people without ever actually meeting any of them. (See what I did there? I deliberately slagged off Mail and Express readers without any evidential basis.)

In fact I think that many of the tabloids are such easy targets that we all forget that the broadsheets have their own agendas too. The tabloids are often so obviously ridiculous that a child of four could critically demolish their publication.

The first Sun story I came across through Google Reader yesterday was about a 99p bikini, clearly and simply an excuse to put up a picture of an attractive model. It must be very difficult to take the Sun seriously when it is so blatantly voyeuristic.

The Mail is seen as rather more threatening by many, but while its headlines are often so detached from the real story, it is still easy to pick apart. About a month ago, they ran the headline Muslim PC sues after workmates 'laughed at his beard', something any sane person would obviously decry as 'political correctness gone mad' ... until you read the first paragraph and realise that the headline neglected to mention that they also called him a "fucking Paki".

This week's Saturday Guardian, however, annoyed me in a less obvious way. As I often do, I read Ben Goldacre's excellent Bad Science column, and was not surprised to see him take apart some badly implemented research on schoolchildren's knowledge of the Holocaust.

(The article is well worth a full read, but the upshot is that children were asked about the Holocaust before they learned about it at age 14, and then pilloried for not knowing the correct answers. This 'research' went on to be used to attack schools and teachers in the mainstream media, while other legitimate research went unnoticed.)

Funny, then, that in the exact same newspaper, towards the back page in the What We've Learned This Week section, that Lucy Mangan listed the statistic Nine out of 10 British children don't play outdoors regularly.

Now, this is a statistic that I couldn't possibly say isn't true, mainly because there is no citation or reference of any kind, so I couldn't possibly verify it either. The sentence simply stands on its own as fact without any justification for is publication.

I don't even know what it means. What does "regularly" mean? Every day? Every other day? Once a week? How old are these children that were surveyed? Where do they live? In the country, or the city? How many children were surveyed, were they a large enough group and representative of "British children"?

What's more, what does "playing outdoors" mean? Does the school playground count (surely not, if they're saying 9 out of 10)? What about some structured out of school club, is that okay? Or does it have to be that they go out of their house of their own accord to play within their own friendship group?

What does the person who carried out the research hope to prove by it, and when was the question asked? If this is some research carried out in January, then I'd suggest that no, not that many children would play out regularly. January's a cold month, I don't blame them.

Because this statistic was printed in the Guardian, I'm sure a lot fewer people would be skeptical of this statistic than if it had appeared in the Mail or Express. So, despite being such a dodgy claim, it would doubtless have been pointed out at many breakfast tables over the last few days as "yet another example of Broken Britain".

And this worries me.


  1. Good stuff lately! One thing this makes me wonder - is creating a Broken Britain agenda just fashionable? It wouldn't seem to be a natural part of the Guardian's political leaning. Just a more sophisticated type of scaremongering then?

  2. Ah yes, it worries me in two ways.

    a) The Guardian seems to be buying into the Broken Britain argument, which offers neither cause nor solutions to the many problems that get lumped unhelpfully together.

    b) The broadsheets can get away with not being thorough, because they are automatically considered more credible than the tabloids. And yet they still print guff like this, where it is more likely to be taken very seriously.

    I don't think this particular example is much to do with the Guardian's leanings (it's from more of a comment/gossip section), but it's still rather lazy and casts doubt on the credibility of the rest of the paper.

  3. Good post, i agree with what you said about the pappers, people need to read the same story by several different pappers to get the whole story.

  4. Aye. It worries me too. The only comfort is the thought that Guardian readers should be more critical - but you can't rely on that and it's a groundless assumption. Poo. Good to see you're a Ben Goldacre fan :)

  5. Well, this site helps. Now we not only consume the media, but it's possible to consume the consuming of media, to think about how and what to consume. THey're loosing influince now, and when the baby boomers eventually die off, the generations left will be far less interested in the mainstream media. We're used to picking through the crap to get a little truth. Hopefully then they'll just go away.


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