“In 800 newspaper bylines I can count on fingers and toes the ones that were actually true” - the words of Richard Peppiatt, British tabloid defector, speaking last week at a series of talks on Bad Journalism at the Centre for Inquiry. According to Peppiat, the articles he wrote were a “fiction, just here to entertain”. Peppiatt attested that while working as a journalist he was expected to turn out fifteen stories in an eight hour shift at The Daily Star “leaving no time for truth”. Peppiatt left The Daily Star afraid his fact devoid writings may stir hatred that would result in people getting hurt, “you forget that there are people who pick up that paper and believe every word of it”. Peppiatt listed off dozens of headlines that were completely untrue, far exceeding the spellbinding list that Peppiatt read out at the Leveson Inquiry (see footage below). I wasn’t able to keep up with all of them but I’ll post a link to the video of the talk when it becomes available.
The story that pushed Peppiatt over the edge was a tale The Daily Star spun about squatting toilets. After a local newspaper in the Rochdale area of the UK reported that a private shopping centre was building two squatting toilets, The Daily Star’s article told that Rochdale council were building squatting toilets instead of normal toilets in order to cater for Muslims. This was simply not true; a private shopping centre was building squatting toilets alongside regular toilets and Rochdale council had nothing to do with the story whatsoever. According to Peppiatt:
"We were told to ignore all calls from Rochdale council because it was too good a story… the PCC told us to issue an apology. I was told to spin the apology into a front page story, saying we had stopped Rochdale council building the toilets.”
Peppiatt’s testimony is all the more damning in light of the outcome of the Leveson Inquiry, the recent British investigation in to press corruption. In Peppiatt’s words, the Press Complaints Commission, the British voluntary media regulatory body “are the only sheriff in town and they are armed with a plastic gun". An experience I myself can attest to, following my own experiences with the PCC.
…The list goes on. Marshall exposed the model of pollsters such as One Poll who toss subscribers 10p a survey, only cashing out after punters whizz through at least three hundred surveys earning the forty pound minimum payout. According to Marshall, One Poll typically sell each survey based story for £3000 and are typically getting three stories a day into the British press. This has allowed such pleasant custom as Brandon Wade who runs “dating websites” that allow men to bid for dates at auction to get up to 47 articles in the tabloids in 11 months. Wade’s efforts went as far as exploiting the Dark Night massacre to run a One Poll survey that concluded rich men would be more likely to take a bullet for their girlfriends than less wealthy folk.
Marshall told how the elementary technique of surveys using leading questions and closed answers is used to spin whatever tale the PR man wishes in the front pages of British newspapers:
Marshall also told of numerous reports based on “studies” which amounted to dubious polls conducted simply on tiny samples consisting solely of companies’ Facebook fans:
Marshall described an enlightening tale of how during his efforts to publicise his 1023 mass homeopathy overdose stunt in which he spent a week trying to speak to the BBC amongst other news sources without reply but his five minute interview with the Press Association got on to the front page of the BBC website and in pretty much every major newspaper. This tale chimed with Peppiatt’s account of journalists without time to source real news – instead being forced by bosses to opt for tales ready-spun from PR men via newswires. This practice has been dubbed “churnalism” – there is even a website where you can check to see exactly what percentage of a news story has been pasted straight from a press release:
Marshall cited a 2008 study which reported that 49% of British news stories [including in trusted sources such as The Telegraph, The Independent, The Guardian, The Times, BBC, ITV and Sky News] are driven by news agency (such as the Press Association) copy, “plagiarism under another name”. Marshall made the case that this is a symptom of a newsroom culture which drives reporters to write over three times as much copy today as they would have done twenty years ago. This, Marshall explained, leaves reporters without time to fact check and caused the explosion in the “dark arts shortcuts” of bin-raking, phone hacking, payments to the police and PR churnalism.
The other speakers included Dr. Petra Boyton who told of how she was often asked questions by journalists, “who propose answers” for her. Her typical response - asking questions about the questions she is asked in order to unpack the discussion and debunk misinformation would go ignored, if the facts don’t fit with the newspaper narrative the facts get cut. "You are being set up the whole time by people who don't know what they don't know". Dr. Petra described the baseless statistic that “43% of women globally have a sexual dysfunction” which remains recited unquestioningly in a cannibalistic cycle with no one taking a second to check for evidence. She also described how her fear that “no one takes exploitation of men seriously” constantly falls on deaf ears, with phone numbers constantly appearing in newspapers and magazines with the guise of offering men advice while in fact using manipulative sales lines to sell dubious merchandise. In perhaps the most horrifying moment of the day, Dr. Boynton told of how the Daily Mail described Dr. Dartey, a cosmetic surgeon specializing in vaginal cosmetic surgery as a “Harley Street” doctor while preaching about his treatments, before he was struck off for performing vaginal surgery that was unnecessary and caused severe and lasting damage. In their coverage following the incident, the Daily Mail turned their description around, instead calling Dartey the doctor “who qualified in the former Soviet Union”, failing to mention their previous coverage that helped popularize him in the first place.
The series also included an introduction to Rbutr, the outstanding browser app (that I have been using for a while and can’t recommend more highly) which will alert you when an article you read has been rebutted elsewhere online. The talk ended with a lightening run through by the wonderful Dr. Ben Goldacre on the perils of bad science in the media and in the pharmaceutical industry. I can’t even hope to fit the highlights of Dr. Goldacre’s lecture in to this blog post so I’ll just point you to his excellent blog (just in case you somehow don’t read it already) where you can find his positively groundbreaking recent book Bad Pharma and his earlier book Bad Science. On the topic of the day - bad journalism, Dr. Goldacre recommended a website called Health News Review, which debunks poor coverage of medical matters in the media. I’d also like to add to the list the NHS’s Behind The Headlines blog which performs a similarly excellent service. If mental health is your thing, the daily Mental Elf bulletin performs a wonderful job, as well as bloggers such Neuroskeptic, Neurocritic, Mindhacks, Oxford Neuropsychologist Dorothy Bishop’s blog and UK Science Blogger of the year Suzi Gage’s Sifting the Evidence blog - all of whom never fail to amaze. For cold hard facts the Full Fact blog does an astounding job of clearing the wheat from the chaff. If you’re politically minded, Political Scrapbook provide factual news on (mostly British) politics, for a poignant example check out their recent observation that Leveson recently broke his silence following his inquiry on press regulation, during a private $950 a seat media conference in Australia by coming to the mind-boggling conclusion "that unless criminal and civil law is enforced against bloggers, the quality of journalism in conventional media could deteriorate.”
So be careful out there, it looks like in 2013 you will be no more likely to be able to trust what you read in the papers than in 2012, but fortunately there are an ever widening array of resources that will keep you immunized against the nonsense. I recommend an RSS reader (such as Google Reader) which you can hurl the links above into to keep informed – “Really Simple Syndication” is particularly great for reading offline on mobile devices and it is completely free and open source. If you make one New Year’s resolution this year, make it to throw out the papers and switch to sources you trust using RSS. I guarantee you, you won’t look back. Here’s to a happy, PR-churnalism-free-evidence-based-inspiring-reading-packed 2013!
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Lewis, J., Williams, A., & Franklin, B. (2008). A compromised fourth estate? UK news journalism, public relations and news sources. Journalism Studies, 9(1), 1-20. Available online at: http://www.levesoninquiry.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2011/12/Exhibit-ref.-2.pdf