Tuesday, January 5, 2010...8:30 am

Modern media is rubbish #1: two examples

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Yesterday’s “news” carried two items that should have been shocking in their inability to separate hysteria and PR puffery from proper reporting. If that wasn’t really what the modern media is all about.
The stories are from supposedly opposite corners of the media ring – one super serious, the other light-hearted. Each is crap in its own ghastly way.
1. Our children cannot talk – shock, horror!
A leading item on the Radio 4 Today programme (starts at 07:43) and flagged up on the BBC website was the story that many children find it hard to learn to talk.
It’s all very upsetting – and parents are understandably “anxious”. Clearly the Government should Do Something. Which is why several reports wheeled out Jean Gross, England’s first Communication Champion for Children, to declare that “skilled professionals” should be employed to help solve this enormous problem.
Here’s my enormous problem with the coverage.

  • It’s based on a subjective opinion poll by YouGov, rather than, say, scientific research. Obviously parents are best-placed to know when and how often their children speak – but they’re not necessarily best-placed to know what’s “normal” in child development.
  • It has no historical context. The implication is that children have more problems talking and understanding speech today than they did before – but there’s absolutely no evidence this is the case.
  • It assumes there is a problem in the first place. You know, children are different. Some develop fast, some slower. There’s no investigation here into whether slow development of speech is inherently problematic. It could well be that in the normal distribution of speech development “one in six” children is slower. Given that social class seems to have nothing to do with it, it’s as plausible a hypothesis as any.
  • It mistakes parental anxiety for science. Just because parents are worried about something doesn’t make it unsafe. The whole “MMR jab makes children autistic” nonsense was deeply unscientific and based on fear, not evidence, for example. Whipping this up as another cause for parental neurosis may not be the best way to nurture well-balanced children.
  • It used no objective comment. Jean Gross may have been an educational psychologist, but her main role now and for some time has been in advocacy. That means it’s her job to find problems to solve – not to wonder if there really is a problem in the first place. A neutral point of view would have been useful here.

I’m not saying there is no problem, by the way. I’m just saying the media coverage needed to be far less superficial and unquestioning.
2. Choc horror at £100,000 box of treats
Here’s a fluffy human interest story from yesterday morning’s Metro.
Apparently Marjorie McLeod ordered what she thought was a £21.50 box of chocolates, only to find out that were worth a cool £5,000 each! But the generous folk at Cocoa Mountain in Durness, Scotland (buy their chocolates online here!), won’t make her stump up the cash – they value their customers too much!
Now, I like a bit of morning paper silliness as much as the next person (I remember particularly a nice pre-internet item about a man who could only get a good night’s sleep on a BA business class airline seat – so the airline gave him one).
But this is puffery beyond the call of journalism. I mean, has no one on Metro actually bought anything online? You go to the checkout and fill out your credit card details and look at how much your basket is worth. I think I’d notice if it had a six-figure total.
The “story” is fleshed out a bit on the Press and Journal site, which reveals that the price was a joke and Mrs McLeod “ordered them in a hurry and didn’t realise the price”.
It’s the first thing that I wondered, but the question wasn’t even asked in the Metro story. Sure – the whole thing sounds like a set-up. But at least pretend you’re a cynical hack and ask a few questions about what happened.
Better still – find a quirky human interest story that is (a) quirky, (b) interesting and (c) talks to the human it happened to.
More from the sordid and hopeless world of media when I can bear it.


  • Much of the content in the media today is simply PR dressed up to look like news. And, sadly, the Beeb is as guilty as anyone.
    If reporters got out of the office more and actually spent time talking to people and sniffing around, then we might get more real stories.

  • Your post on the BBC story about speech development was so useful I’ve drawn on a bit of it for a session I’m doing with the Goldsmiths evening class. Not a straight lift, and I will, of course, reference your blog, so that’s where all the new traffic will (hopefully) come from.

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