Monday, August 28, 2006

When Sunday Papers Attack

The Fox channel in the States used to show a program called “When Animals Attack.” It featured video, usually of the shaky, hand-held camcorder variety, of animals attacking people. Wounded deer goring hunters, panda bears mauling zoo visitors – that sort of thing. I always called the show “When Animals Attack Stupid People” because in at least 90% of the so-called shocking attacks, it was a case of a person doing something stupid that caused an animal to react in a fairly predicable, instinctual manner.

If you lean up against the bars of the panda enclosure to get your picture taken, you have to expect that the panda is going to defend its territory. If you get too close to a wounded and trapped animal, it just might go with Option A in fight-or-flight response.

I was thinking about this yesterday when I was looking through the Sunday papers - “When Sunday Papers Attack Their Readers' Intelligence.” I don't know if this is the toll that tabloid journalism has wrought on the broadsheets, but I do know that this obsession to sell papers using tantalizing teasers and screaming scare-mongering headlines is just out of control.

Exhibit A.
The Sunday Times front page, top of the fold: Ireland has worst crime rates in EU

Oh no! Let me buy an attack dog and a shotgun! In the first column alone, the story starts to become a bit less shocking. First of all, this is an as-yet unpublished report done by “respected research bodies, such as Gallup and the Max Planck Institute.” (The pendant in me wants to know if the survey was actually done by Gallup and the Max Planck Institute, or if it was just organizations like them.) Secondly, this research was compiled not by using police reports or conviction rates but by surveys:

“About 2,000 people were surveyed on their experiences of crime in 15 old EU member states and three new ones, Poland, Estonia, and Hungary.”

I find that paragraph extremely ambiguous. Were the people surveyed on their experiences of crime in each of the countries or just in their country of residence? It's also unclear to me - was this 2,000 people in each of the countries or was it 2,000 people total? If you're talking about 2,000 people total, that breaks down to 111 people in each country. I'm willing to chalk this up to poor writing and give the respected research bodies the benefit of the doubt.

Even with the benefit of the doubt, there is no way from this article to determine how these respondents were chosen and to ascertain whether or not they form a reasonably representative sample. Think about it – if I ask someone in Ballymun about their experiences with crime, I bet the report is going to be a lot different than if I ask someone in Dalkey.

It's also worth considering that a survey, by its nature, depends on the forthrightness and openness of its respondents. The willingness to report certain crimes, like sexual assaults or hate crimes, is often quite controversial and dependent on how the victim feels he or she will be treated. This is true of reporting crimes to the police and is probably, to some extent, true of reporting crimes to a researcher.

I was ready to stop reading after the first column, but in the interest of scientific journalism, I persevered. In the second column, an opposition party politician makes the predicable rants about the failures of the current government to get to grips with the crime wave that's sweeping the country. Then in the third and final column, the article throws terrified readers a small shred of comfort:

Despite high levels of theft and assault, below-EU average levels of hate crimes, consumer fraud and corrpution were reported.

Below-average levels of consumer fraud and corruption? I really have a hard time believing that and have to wonder again about how representative the sample really was.

I'm not saying that Ireland is as safe as a 1950s neighbourhood and that we should all sleep with our doors wide open. But it seems to me like twisting up the lowlights of an unpublished report based on survey evidence collected from .0005% of the population is lazy, scaremongering journalism. Repeat after me: “There's lies, damn lies, and statistics.”

Exhibit B.
The Sunday Times front page, below the fold: Footballers use babies for 'repair kits'

So, those posters I've seen up around town, with the cheerful, chubby-cheeked baby and the words “Don't Use Me for Spare Parts” are all true then? And it's Premiership Footballers who are perpetrating this dastardly act against all that is cute and baby?

No, of course not. Read a little further and it turns out that five Premiership Footballers have frozen the umbilical cord blood from their babies. The cells could later be used as treatment if the child (or a matched sibling) developed certain forms of cancer. This has nothing to do with stem cells taken from embryos, which is a hot-button issue right now, and the words “stem cells” can cause a lot of readers to jump to conclusions.

Also, only one footballer, who declined to be named, gave a clumsy quote about the stem cells acting as a handy repair kit. There may well be ethical ramifications involved with parents using their childrens' stem cells (as there are in parents using in vitro fertilization to select embryos that carry the right genetic material to produce stem cells that could save an ill sibling) but the article is blowing the issue out of all proportion.

Plus, the article perpetuates this notion that babies, embryos, stem cells, and umbilical cord blood are all the same interchangeable concepts. They are not and those posters of the aforementioned cherub irk me on a regular basis.

Exhibit C.
The Sunday Independent front page, top of the fold: Book to spark new controversy over Robert's killing

Yes, don't think I'm just beating up on The Times. The Sindo is hardly a bastion of reputable reporting. All this article does is rehash the facts and rehash Robert's mother's shocking (and really unacceptable) allegations made during her victim impact statement in open court. A better headline might have been “Book to renew controversy over Robert's killing”.

And, in fact, the first sentence of the article is:

A new book is set to reignite the controversy surrounding the manslaughter sentence imposed on Wayne O'Donoghue for the killing of his young friend Robert Holohan shortly after Christmas 2004.

Unless a big secret is being kept for the launch of the book (which is possible, but I'd expect at least a scrap of a teaser if that were the case), this article contains nothing new on the case. Call me crazy, but I thought a newspaper was supposed to have, you know, news in it. But I suppose it's a sad fact of life that putting the tragedy of a young boy's death (combined with allegations against the defendant) sells newspapers, even if the article is telling you nothing new about the case. OK, fine, the book is new. But if the intention is to inform readers about the book, isn't that more properly covered by a short article in the arts section of the newspaper?

I could go on. The Sindo's magazine is usually a treasure trove of blood-boiling examples of sleazy and hypocritical journalism. But this post has already gone on far longer than I intended. And, after the exhibits I found just on the front pages, I don't know that I have the stomach or the energy to delve further.


At 29 August 2006 at 09:57, Blogger Fence said...

The SIndo is the worst though. I can't read it anymore. Though I only see it when at the parents, usually featuring my mother moaning about how rubbish it is. But she got in the habit of buying it, so continues to do so.
I mainly get the Sunday Times, but tend to just read the magazines and the review section. And the sports.

There really isn't much choice on a Sunday.

At 29 August 2006 at 11:58, Anonymous NineMoons said...

My favourite part of studying criminology was the whole 'moral panic' thing. The way in which the media stir up mass hysteria by exaggerating reports of crime caused by segments of society - Mods and Rockers, hip-hop fans, immigrants, whatever. It's a fascinating subject - you'll never read a newspaper in the same way again!!

At 29 August 2006 at 17:38, Blogger Shane said...

I have a great way to defend myself from media attacks. I ignore it. I never watch the news nor do I read newspapers. I read a few websites that don't give me any silly reports about why either the killer bees or the sharks are going to get me. I use my free time playing video games. I feel more human as a result.

At 30 August 2006 at 17:16, Blogger -Ann said...

Fence - Yeah, I don't usually read much of the Sunday papers either (about the same sections as you), but I guess I had too much time on my hands last Sunday. You're dead right about the Sindo. I've wanted to post before about it but by the time I sat down to do it, the issue in question was too old to really be relevant anymore.

NM - That does sound interesting. I'm a weird mix of trusting and skeptical, so I think I have a tendency to read the paper somewhat suspiciously anyway. Usually at least.

Shane - I'm glad that works for you but you know I could never do that. I like current events. I like video games too though.


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