SubScribe: The truth is never pure and rarely simple Google+

Monday 11 March 2013

The truth is never pure and rarely simple

Remember the five Ws? Of course you do, but just in case, let's get them down in blue and white

Who, What, When, Where, Why...

Whether we learnt our journalism in college, university, local rag or graduate training scheme,  lesson one on day one was that without these five facts no story was complete. Indeed, where possible we were encouraged to add a sixth: hoW.

The shorthand may get rusty, the typing slower, the difference between a non-metropolitan borough and a district council more blurred, but we never forget that first lesson. 
Yet some of us still ignore it.
Maybe we're working on a breaking story and not all the details are clear; maybe we're subbing against the clock and we can't see a way to fit them all in 25 words; maybe the desk is demanding the copy when we're still waiting for that vital call back - or maybe we can't be bothered to do a proper check; and maybe some of the Ws are too inconvenient.
The Ws rule isn't just about getting basic facts across to the reader: 'Becky Smallbone bit a chunk out of a stranger's burger in Middlewallop High Street, Fleabridge magistrates were told yesterday. She said she'd been dieting for a week and was so hungry she could eat a horse.

It's about setting information in context, so that the reader can make a reasonable judgment on the events reported. And to serve that reader we have a responsibility to make sure that what we write or how we sub a story is faithful to the truth.
That sounds so obvious that you may think I'm daft to mention it. But even before the reader has got to the second sentence, he or she will have been given signals on what to think: the position of the story within the paper and on the page, the headline type and wording, the accompanying picture and caption (which will always be read before the story).
Most people know which direction most papers are coming from - a Guardian reader isn't likely to wake up tomorrow and buy the Telegraph just for a change - but most people also think that the news is the news and that the politics or agenda of the paper is reflected in the leaders, features and comment sections. Very few people see more than one paper, so they won't know that the page lead in the Express was a down-page single in the Telegraph, a nib in The Times and didn't even make the Guardian. They have to draw conclusions from the material they have in front of them, and what is written into or left out of the story will help to form opinions that will be aired at the breakfast table, in the workplace, down the pub, on Question Time or Any Questions? and even in Parliament.
Quite a responsibility for the humble hack, then.

Last Friday SubScribe published a post about International Women's Day, which mentioned a Daily Mail report headlined 'The generation that's finished with feminism'. The Mail didn't acknowledge IWD, but it did put five stories with the vague theme of 'women's issues' on a spread under the umbrella head 'Portrait of 21st century British woman'. The feminism story was the right-hand page lead and it troubled me. It troubled me, and continued to do so all weekend, because of what it contained and because of what it didn't contain (and because I didn't feel I'd made enough of it in a portmanteau blog). So please forgive me as I return to Steve Doughty's report in a little more detail.

Most young women strongly object to being called a feminist - and say that they like men, say state-funded researchers.
In fact, they believe that the aims of the feminist movement have all but been achieved in the Western world.
Rather than supporting a movement for new rights and equality, they admire the notion of femininity.

The story is based on a study of forty German and British women who were interviewed by Dr Christina Scharff of King's College, London, a couple of years ago. Her work was financed by an £80,000 grant from the Economic and Social Research Council, which in turn receives most of its funds from Vince Cable's Business department. 
Most young women strongly object...Dr Scharff actually reported that thirty of her subjects would not describe themselves as feminists; two would, while the other eight accepted the description with caveats - for example, that they weren't man-haters. Those who rejected the feminist label often did so because they did not want to be associated with the negative man-hating stereotype.
Say they like men...This seems an odd phrase and unnecessary. Does anyone seriously think that most young women don't like men?
The aims of the feminist movement have all but been achieved...Dr Scharff found that many of those she interviewed saw feminism as an historical collective movement that brought women together to fight for their rights. They believed that movement had achieved its purpose and was redundant. Dr Scharff also pointed out, however, that there was no single movement with a unified set of goals: 'What gets overlooked in all these responses is that feminism represents many different theories and approaches.'
Rather than supporting a movement for new rights..they admire...femininity...This sentence suggests that equality and femininity are mutually exclusive; Dr Scharff did not offer her interviewees any such choice. She did find that they saw themselves 'within conventional norms of femininity and heterosexuality', but that is not the same as admiring femininity.

The Mail report does not tell us:
  • That the survey was conducted two years ago and its results published in a book called Repudiating Feminism in May last year;
  • That the survey involved only 40 women
  • That these women were from different class and racial backgrounds and included lesbians, bisexuals and heterosexuals
  • That Dr Scharff describes herself as a feminist
Going in search of the who, when and why, I looked up Dr Scharff and the ESRC and discovered that the research council had issued a press release last week which included several of the phrases that appeared in the Mail on Friday. The notes for editors on the release clearly stated that the material had been published in the 2012 book. So why had the ESRC issued the release - had there been further analysis of the research, or new findings? No, came the swift and candid reply: 'We used Dr Scharff’s research on feminism to tie in with international women’s day...this does not stem from a new report or event.'

So the PR team had done their job (although they didn't mention IWD as the peg and they did use the phrase 'new research'). Did the Mail team do theirs? 

Dr Scharff is quoted in the press release - but not quite as extensively as she is in the Mail. Various bits of the release are put together in a different order to create a series of 'direct quotes'. For example:
Dr Sharff said the young women...were united in rejecting feminism. 'They thought there was no need for it any more.'  The women may have been overwhelmingly opposed to being described as feminists, but they were not united; and while the interpretation in 'they thought there was no need for it' may be accurate, the paper is putting its own words in Dr Scharff's mouth.
The paper also quotes 'the Scharff report' as saying 'Increased opportunities to work and to decide when to have children allowed contemporary women to see themselves as empowered individuals who have benefited from social changes'. This is, in fact, a direct quote from the PR's summary of the researcher's findings.  

The end result is a story that may be described as  'accurate', but one that is also misleading. That old joke 'never let the facts get in the way of a good story' isn't so funny in real life.

A reader might well come away from this newspaper report under the impression that thousands, if not millions, of young women today are more interested in being seen as feminine than in being treated decently and fairly. I would venture to suggest that this is not the way Dr Scharff, above, would interpret her work. 
In her book, she explains that she embarked on her study because she had been struck by the hostility towards the concept of 'feminism', even in the context of conversations about continued inequalities. She wanted to find out why, especially, she writes, in the  light of  recent  developments, such as the resurgence of young women’s feminist activism in both countries. It was clearly a study into the rejection of the label feminism, not the rejection of the quest for  equality, and she concluded that it was the lesbian bra-burning stereotype that was turning the young women off. This point was clearly understood by the PRs, who headlined their handout Myths of man-hating feminists make feminism unpopular.

But, most important of all, Dr Scharff states unambiguously: My aim in this book is not  to make a general statement about young women’s relationship with feminism; a sample of forty women does not allow me to draw such conclusions. 

Well, the Mail had no such inhibitions. Doughty's story describes the Scharff report as 'the latest in a number of studies which have found that feminism - which remains a major influence on politicians, in Whitehall and on broadcast media - is unpopular among a large proportion of women.

Two years ago a consortium of pressure groups including the feminist Fawcett Society and political freedom campaigners Amnesty International found that fewer than four out of ten women had ever experienced derogatory treatment because of their sex...'

It also asserts that a Blair government research project into bias against women at work had admitted that it could find no evidence of discrimination. The story gives no further details of this  project - could it have meant Baroness Prosser's examination of the pay gap and ways to reduce it? The one that says Many women are, day-in, day-out, working far below their abilities and this waste of talent is a national outrage...if we do not act now...women will continue to lose out...'

The Fawcett Society/Amnesty exercise was easier to find, though the four out of ten statistic wasn't. The organisations combined with ActionAid and Women's Aid to commission an Ipsos MORI poll to mark the centenary of International Women's Day in 2011. The survey found what it called significant levels of inequality, that gender stereotypes were still a strong force at work and at home, that 47% of  women did not feel they were being treated equally to men  and that 60% of the women aged between 15 and 30 surveyed had  experienced sexist remarks and other forms of sexist behaviour whilst going about their daily lives, including being whistled at, having sexist comments directed at them, being touched inappropriately or being discriminated against because of their gender. 
And even if fewer than four out of ten had suffered derogatory treatment because of their sex, is that something to be pleased about? Is it ok for more than a third of women to have to put up with this sort of behaviour?

It is perfectly reasonable for reporters to take a press release as a starting point for a wider story, and of course they aren't going to reproduce it wholesale - that takes us to the realms of puffery. But a story made up of a handout and minimal cuts research is not a story. Cherry-picking the convenient facts, moulding them into a different shape and leaving out anything that might weaken the impact is not journalism. It's propaganda.

Well, here's a bit of blatant propaganda from SubScribe

In spite of the Mail's best efforts, feminism appears to be alive and well among intelligent young women - and men. Last year sixteen women at Duke University, North Carolina, posed the question 'Who needs feminism?' They asked fellow students to write their answers on a whiteboard and to be photographed with their efforts. They struck a chord and the idea was copied in Canada, Lahore and at Oxford and Leeds universities, among others. If you search the hashtags #ineedfeminismbecause and #whoneedsfeminism and #thisiswhatafeministlookslike you will find that Twitter is full of people of all colours, shapes, sizes and ages holding whiteboards; there is even a Twitter Youth Feminist Army.

Mr Doughty and his colleagues appear to be hoisting the flags prematurely.

How do you see the future of journalism? Do you still have a paper delivered or pick one up at the station on the way to work? Do you prefer print, Kindle or iPad? Or have you given up on the mainstream media and switched to Twitter and blogs? Please join in the SubScribe survey here. Thank you.



  1. Text of email to Dom Ponsford at UKPG: I've now read all of Liz Gerard's SubScribe blog posts, and I reckon every one of them should be required reading for all aspiring young journalists, not just because of what they say but the way they say it – style, flair, and banging the drum for all that has been lost (and thrown away, with dire consequences) in today's 'journalism'. Have you signed her up yet? Whatever she's asking for, give it to her! She's worth every penny, and there's no time to lose!

  2. Nothing like an endorsement by Fleet Street Fox! Tally ho! And you're better, so I hope you do at least as well, in which case, mine's and Old Speckled Hen plus a superfluity of Laphroaig...

  3. Blushing again...not better, different. We come from different points on the journalistic spectrum and cover different areas. She works amazingly hard, blogging every day, plus writing her book, plus talking to students etc. she's a great ambassador for the trade, but thank you again for your kind words.

  4. Your analysis is spot on of course. But this sort of selective reporting is basic house style on many national papers. It is just that the Mail is more shameless than most. You could perform the same exercise most days of the week.