Saturday, 6 June 2009

How to get your research in the Daily Mail

[From Lolcats]

Many years ago I used to work for a press cuttings agency and would therefore read most of the papers every day. One of the most interesting things about this job was seeing how the same story was retold by different papers through different ideological lens. You didn’t think you were getting unbiased news did you? And if that was what people wanted, they would read AP or PA everyday.

No, news is given to us with the light or heavy spin of political opinion. And research is used to enable this in the mainstream press.

This can be well demonstrated by this story about an interview with Sir Stuart Rose by the Observer (trailing the full interview in their Magazine) and in the Daily Mail. The story is that Sir Stuart Rose gave his personal opinion on women and the ‘glass ceiling’. He is the Chief Executive of Marks & Spencer, one of the biggest retailers in the country, and so we are expected to care what he thinks.

Now the Observer pad this article out by getting reactions from other organisations namely the Fawcett Society and Refuge. Fawcett gives stats on the number of women in senior positions in various sectors and Refuge gives a fairly meaningless quote about changing expectations.

The Daily Mail rehashes this article (rather than the original interview) and adds in it’s own bit of ‘new’ research about female happiness. Couple of interesting points about the Daily Mail piece:
  1. It leaves out key pieces of information
  2. Edits the quotes from Fawcett and Refuge in a way that I think distorts their meaning
  3. And throws in a piece of research on female happiness as a way of directly linking the concept that ‘women have crashed through the glass ceiling’ and ‘women are less happy because of it’.
Key information left out - the Fawcett stats on women in top positions in different sectors.
By leaving this information out the fundamental assertion that Sir Stuart makes goes unchallenged in the Daily Mail article. It would be a sentiment that the Daily Mail would agree with “How can there be gender inequality when we’ve had a female Prime Minister/CEO/fighter pilot” etc. You don’t need a GCSE in statistics to work out the significance of this statement. You don’t even need to have gone to primary school.

‘Interesting’ editing of quotes.
I was at first surprised to see Refuge quoted in this piece, given that I think it is fair to say they are a feminist organisation. That was until I realised the Daily Mail hadn’t included the whole quote given to the Observer:

“There has been a subterranean war between men and women, which has largely been won by women who don't understand what they've lost. The hard-won freedom of choice has imprisoned women. I just see an exhausted generation trying to do it all."

Only the highlighted text made it into the Daily Mail article. For more on judicious misquoting, watch this video. WARNING: Contains Ann Coulter.



But most interesting of all, the Daily Mail leads on a “new study”, The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness (pdf), that the Daily Mail says claims women are “less happy nowadays despite 40 years of feminism”. Sigh. I know you can probably guess what is coming but I think it needs to be spelt out for posterity.

Firstly, this is not a new study. In fact the Daily Mail has already covered this piece of research at least FIVE times, the first back in 2007 (see here, here, here, here (all pdfs) and here).

As an aside, notice the picture they use of a WOMAN on a COMPUTER with her back turned on a LITTLE BLOND GIRL. How could she?

Secondly, the study is an attitudinal one and the researchers themselves point to many of the problems with their study design: different data sets, shifting expectations, increased ‘emotional intelligence’. This is not a longitudinal study, this is not a cohort study, this is not a study using the same parameters or methodology for each survey.

What concerns me more is the fact that the study has yet to be peer-reviewed (only being accepted into the American Economic Journal: Economic Policy, but not yet published and still no link to their data-set) and yet has obviously been widely press-released and the authors proudly boast their media coverage which includes; The New York Times, CBS News, Financial Times, Guardian, Daily Pennsylvanian and the Western Mail (Wales).

Is this science? The study itself has merit bearing in mind the limitations it points to. Knowledge is a good thing, I don’t think this is a particularly enlightening piece of research but I wouldn’t say it was worthless.

What I do have a problem with is what seems to be the authors’ prioritisation of sensationalised press coverage over academic peer-review. They have for the past 2 years seen the fruits of their labours; wide coverage in the mainstream press and links to stories hinting that perhaps, you know, feminism has gone too far.

The Daily Mail is not particularly pro-women, they are always going to write this kind of guff and find some study or other that will back up their ideological position. Researchers however, should be aghast at the manipulation of their work and should be ashamed of the reactionary articles that reference them rather than proudly linking to them on their website. Unless, this is what passes for academic success these days.

1 comment:

James said...

Great pic above (and cf the dire "won't someone think of the children?" pic on the Daily Mail site).

Some people get depressed and give up trying to point out the flaws in Daily Mail articles. It's like counting the grains of sand on a beach. But you press on, and for that we thank you.