Home / Why You Shouldn’t Believe What You Read in the Newspaper: Two Case Studies

Why You Shouldn’t Believe What You Read in the Newspaper: Two Case Studies

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Perhaps I’ve become more critical over the years, or perhaps newspapers have got worse – probably it is a bit of both – but increasingly I read newspaper articles, get to the end, and ask, what? What evidence have you got to support the contention you’ve made here? Why is the paragraph that debunks the whole story (if it is there at all) buried in the depths of the article? (Well I know why, but why was the reporter allowed to get away with it?)

Two examples. They’re from the Guardian and Observer, probably the least worst in their respective markets in this regard, but nonetheless, there they are, on their websites.

Case One

Today there’s a piece about teenage self-harm. The headline reads: “Sense of failure: the scale of teenage self-harm. Study shows one in five girls has wounded herself. ‘Must-have’ culture brings feelings of inadequacy”. And that’s probably all a majority of readers will look at, and go away with the common message: “society is going to hell”.

But I read on. And an alarm flag went up in paragraph two. “A survey published today by The Priory, which specialises in treating mental health problems and addictions…” A hunt through the rest of the story provides no more details about who conducted the survey – a university department, or even survey company, or an employee of The Priory. Mmmmm … a survey company or employee finds that there’s much more need for services of the company that commissioned it to do the survey. (Because had there been a university it would surely have been mentioned to bolster the story.) And this is the whole foundation for the story. Bit of a worry …

Next: Applied to the general population, survey means more than 1 million British adolescents have considered self-harm and more than 800,000 (13%) actually inflicted injuries on themselves. But was this survey representative of the general population? No data provided, but I have a funny suspicion that it will have been conducted in London and environs, probably amid middle-class kids – the ones likely to end up at The Priory … hardly representative of a whole country. Interesting too, that there is no attribution for who is making the extrapolation.

… A national inquiry into the prevalence of self-harm among British teenagers by the Mental Health Foundation and the Camelot Foundation is due to report next year. That, hopefully, will have proper methodology, and will be the study this story should be waiting for.

…According to Childline, the numbers of youngsters calling its helpline about self-harm has risen by 20% in the last 10 years, with a marked increase – 30% – this year. Has it increased services in that time, has it done more to encourage children to ring, has the issue got more publicity? Does this figure mean anything at all? (Except that the charity – probably with good intentions, wants more money?)

… According to Dr Griffiths, the increased reports of self-harm may also be a reflection of contemporary society and the media, with their emphasis on fame, celebrity and “instant gratification”. I do like that “may”.

Finally, the last paragraph .. According to The Priory, most self-harming is symbolic – typically involving small cuts that do not draw blood and are invisible to teachers and parents. The practice releases natural opioids which can be “incredibly addictive”. So after we’ve all been having lurid images of wrists dripping blood and attempted suicide, we get small scratches. If, and it is a big if, we’ve read to the last paragraph.

So the one-sentence summary – Commercial company commissions survey that finds a greater need for its services. A bit weaker than the original, but more accurate.

Case 2
In the Observer, Why the have-it-all woman has decided she doesn’t want it all. The sub-head reads: “As a new generation of mothers seeks to change the balance between work and home, Tessa Jowell calls for a debate on how we all live”. And there’s a “politics” section logo.

Paragraph two: “But now, the Having All It All generation are giving way to the Actually, I Don’t Want It All – or at least, Not All At The Same Time generation. And their champion comes from a somewhat unusual quarter. The government’s minister for women declares today that modern women are increasingly unwilling to bear the stress of trying to do everything at once – and calls on men to share more of the responsibilities at home.”

So goes the whole story. The basic premise here is “we are responding to a fundamental change in what women want”. But, wait a minute, where is the evidence that this has changed – maybe some statistics on workforce participation, some solid social science survey, hell, even a well-conducted “pop” survey?

None, nada, not a word. The whole story is built on a premise – a very large premise – that it makes no attempt to justify or back up.

But it is worse than that: More than half of British women are currently working in a job for which they are overqualified, often because domestic responsibilities leave them too little time or energy to pursue more senior positions. “Often” – what does that mean? I could equally say – and would say – “often” women are stalled in their jobs because of male prejudice and discrimination, “often” all workers, men and women, are stalled in their careers for all sorts of reasons – from their boss not liking them to their inability to move location because of their children’s schooling …

Now I don’t want to pick on these two particular journalists – they are only cogs in the wheel, and the stories products of the huge pressure to produce great headlines. But such a pity those headlines so often have no solid foundation whatsoever, and yet these are what give readers their view of the world, that guides their votes and their actions.

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About Natalie Bennett

Natalie blogs at Philobiblon, on books, history and all things feminist. In her public life she's the leader of the Green Party of England and Wales.
  • Baronius

    The have-it-all woman wants her husband to do more chores. This is breaking news.

    Nice article; great documentation.

  • Thanks Silas – I am looking for freelance writing gigs, so if anyone wants to offer the seat … (grin)

  • Perhaps we should have you take Jeff Gannon’s seat at the White House Press Room, Ms. Bennett. Maybe for once, we’d get to the heart of things. Keep on writing!

  • Well SFC SKI, these might not be about issues of war and peace, but they are about important social issues, and this sort of campaign, sustained, is likely to have all sorts of effects on public opinion and then policy. (Eg Less provision of childcare in the second case.) So they do matter, I’d say, just as much as war and peace, but reports on such subjects are less likely to be subjected to serious scrutiny.

    But thanks for the compliment!

  • I’ve got an even simpler reason why I don’t trust newspapers any longer. A newspaper in a once dominant New England city was going to run a series about LBJ vs. Goldwater back in 1964. Well, a reporter or two happened to let it slip to a couple of business owners that this series was coming out. The next thing you know a couple of the newspaper’s largest advertisers called the Editor of this consistently Democrat bastion and informed him that if the series ran they would pull all advertising and pump it into an alternative newspaper. Well, you know what happened, right?

    Many years later, this same newspaper accepted a series of ads for a family planning clinic about to open. The first ad ran. Another never appeared. Why? Business owners called the Editor once again. What makes the story interesting is that the Editor died some time later undermysterious circumstances. It all goes to show you that money talks and the truth doesn’t get printed. Now, that’s not a blanket condemnation for all newspapers because broadcast news is just as slimy. Bob Woodward, once a great hero of mine, has proven that even he has a price especially in light of what he knew about Plame-gate. Thank God (and any other appropriate Deity to the reader) for the Blogosphere! We’re the antidote to the Fourth Estate. Stick that in your pipe and smoke it, Bob Novak.

  • You are right on here! This is one of the reasons why I left Journalism school during my undergraduate years. Lack of evidence and lack of objectivity have characterized a lot of the media lately!

    Thank you for this entry!




    Why did you limit to only those 2 articles? These are both fairly mild, and far less important in comparison to war coverage, for example. Hopefully, the MSM will stop presenting opinion as fact, and report more thoroughly, and fairly in the future. Circumspect and responsible use of unnamed sources would be another good idea.

    Still, a good post, nicely researched and dissected for the reader.

  • A challenging post, thanks. As to your first referenced article, I am reminded of a book I read earlier this year called Overdosed America, in which the author pointed out that drug companies (which often co-opt “independent” research) also manage to create “conditions” for which they just happen to have a product.

    What you often see is an effort to redefine medical problems, or to characterize things as medical problems that had previously been largely considered unimportant.

  • Nancy

    The MSM are universally guilty of over-hype, to the point that, like Chicken Little or the boy who cried ‘wolf’, they are lacking in credibility. What is annoying is, they have the gall to wonder why.

  • Natalie, this post is on target. I remember even when writing for the high school newspaper, that we were told to “jazz it up” for a eye-catching headline. Never liked that idea, truthfully.

    I have seen many similar cases as to the ones you describe. Now, I almost disregard the headlines. Except, of course, if I am in line at the supermarket. I just love the headlines on the newsweeklies (no naming names here). They are so outlandish that I laugh all the way through checkout. At least their editors are not pushing that junk as serious news.