Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Smoke and mirrors at the BBC

"Oh goody, another survey. It's got numbers in - no, not just numbers, statistics - so it must be true. Plus it supports what I want to believe, so I won't look at it too closely."
And so, with a flourish of a mouse, the BBC website finds itself carrying this nonsense:
Smoking in the car breaks toxic limit (BBC Health, 16 October 2012)
The article, by Health Editor Michelle Roberts, claims that "smoking in the car, even with the windows open or the air conditioning on, creates pollution that exceeds official "safe" limits. Roberts got the story from a journal called Tobacco Control, which is run by the BMJ (formerly the British Medical Journal). All fairly respectable, and I daresay I'd be tempted to take the evidence at face value if the BMJ claimed that homeopathy is bunk. But a glance at Tobacco Control's website shows that it's already nailed its colours to the mast. Tobacco Control isn't science, it's advocacy. Any journalist should treat it with scepticism.

For those who don't know, BMJ is wholly owned by the British Medical Association, which recently called for a ban on smoking in cars and later had to admit that it had relied on sensationalist, long-discredited data. One might also criticise them for authoritarian control-freakery, but that's a subjective judgement and a journalist should rise above it. But whatever one's views, a good journalist should immediately ask themselves what agenda, if any, is being pursued.

So, let's have a look at those claims:
  1. "A Scottish team who took measurements during 85 car journeys found readings broke World Health Organization limits"
  2. "The researchers … analysed air quality data during a number of journeys ranging from about 10 minutes to an hour in duration"
  3. "In 49 of the 85 journeys in total, the driver smoked up to four cigarettes"
Wait, wait, hang on a minute. None of those journeys lasted more than an hour and yet in 58% of them the driver got through FOUR cigarettes. There's no evidence that people smoke much in cars with kids in them, yet this survey had the drivers practically chain-smoking. That on its own is enough to dismiss the entire study. All we've learnt so far is that the University of Aberdeen, which carried out the research, is a bad place to study science.

Mind you, the article says "up to four". So it could be as low as zero. You can try to get something better out of the abstract if you like, but that's just as vague. Finally:
4. "During these 49 smoking journeys, levels of fine particulate matter averaged 85µg/m3, which is more than three times higher than the 25µg/m3 maximum safe indoor air limit recommended by the World Health Organization"
Pretty damning, huh? Since the headline cites the WHO's recommendations, we ought to check them. I've provided a link so you can check them yourself, but the relevant paragraph says this, with the number the researchers relied on highlighted:
Guideline values
10 μg/m3 annual mean
25 μg/m3 24-hour mean
20 μg/m3 annual mean
50 μg/m3 24-hour mean
Now, this is particulate matter, and I have to take it on trust that the harmful bits in tobacco smoke fall into that category. But WHO is quite clear: this is not occasional doses or a safe limit. The WHO's guidance is that average concentrations of small particulate matter should not exceed 25 microgrammes during the course of the whole day. Isolated or occasional readings above this limit are irrelevant. So the headline isn't just misleading: it's wrong.

What this study actually shows is that, if you lock yourself and your child in a car for 24 hours and chain-smoke constantly, it probably won't be very good for the child. It says nothing about the real world. Put it another way:
"We have created an entirely fake and unrealistic scenario that has produced results that bear no relationship whatsoever to the real world but which we think should be used as the basis for legislation."
Moral: You can always get the numbers you want if you skew the research, and you can always find a journalist who's gullible, lazy or as unprincipled as you.

Quick fixes for the lazy writer

Every editor thinks he can make writers better (see point 2 for why some of these words are highlighted). But few editors can face the truth: most writers think they're good enough already. And even if they know they're not, they can't be bothered to learn all the editor's cherished rules. They don't care about the difference between participles and gerunds.

A couple of weeks ago, I was in the pub with an author who told me that he deliberately writes about leveraging strategic solutions to turnkey issues going forward, because that's how the industry people he deals with talk. Makes you want to weep, doesn't it?

This post isn't for him. It isn't for the editor either. It's for the business writer who knows that his writing can be improved but hasn't got the time or inclination to learn any self-important editor's rules that he suspects were concocted randomly on a Wednesday lunchtime between the third pint and the second whisky. 

This post isn't about how to make your writing beautiful. To paraphrase Steve Jobs, it's about making stuff a bit less sucky.

1) Put words in a natural order
Here's a simple sentence: "Jane ate chicken yesterday." Keep to that order of events as much as you can: "Who did what when." 

So, when one of my authors wrote something similar to this: "ABC Co in 1999 implemented a business restructuring", I changed it to "ABC restructured its business in 1999."

2) Keep the subject next to the verb
Look at the opening of this post: every subject is right next to its verb except in one instance, where the adverb 'deliberately' has inserted itself. I haven't gone back and edited it to make this happen. That's how I write, and I'm feeling a bit smug that I was already subconsciously obeying my own rule. 

Every sentence introduces a subject, and every subject does something, as revealed by the verb. As soon as your readers encounter a subject, they want to know what the action was. Don't leave them in suspense. Answer the question 'who did what?' as soon as you can by putting the verb straight after the subject.

3) Keep the sentences short
Read it aloud and don't breathe till you reach a full stop. If you run out of breath before the end of the sentence, it's too long.

4) Use simple phrases
Don't write "more cost-competitive when compared to" when you could write "cheaper than". Don't write "due to it being" when you could write "because it is".

5) Delete adjectives and adverbs
You probably use three times as many as you need. "Total" can almost always go, closely followed by "overall", "ongoing", "rather", "very" and "quite". 

6) Ditch the numbers
Words are for telling stories. Numbers are data, and readers don't absorb data when reading stories. That's why someone can write: "Rates fell 11.2% from $9,468 to $8,330," and half of their readers wouldn't notice the mistake. And don't write 50% when you mean half.

7) Ditch the initials
Any paragraph spattered with initials looks daunting. Where possible, write the names of organisations in full, unless it's an organisation better known by its initials (OPEC, for example). Then consider knocking it down to title case: Opec.

8) Break any rule if doing so makes the sentence read better
That goes for all these rules too.

Moral: You're smart, you're articulate and you know your job. Simple language conveys that better.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

A shameful failure of ethics at the Guardian

Readers of the Guardian newspaper in the UK rightly criticise the 'gutter' press for whipping up hysteria by pandering to the prejudices of their readers. But Friday's web version showed that the paper isn't averse to doing the same thing itself, while its readers are just as prone to moronic mob behaviour.

It began with a link on the Guardian website's front page, concerning the hunt for missing five-year old April Jones: 
Go to the story, and you get a video clip of notorious Sky News journalist Kay Burley interviewing someone who I presume isn't a police spokesman but seems close to the investigation. He reveals that the police are now treating the abduction as a murder investigation and that the police are now looking for "a body". 

Burley then calls across two women, to whom she was speaking earlier, to ask for their reaction. That's where it all goes wrong.

Here's the Guardian's story in full:
Sky News presenter Kay Burley on Friday chose – live on air – to tell two volunteers searching for April Jones that "having spoken to the family" they "don't expect to find her alive".
Stunned, both women struggled to offer a coherent response.
Within minutes Twitter was ablaze with complaints. Tom Watson MP said Burley's questions were "insensitive bordering on cruel".
Take a look at the film to make up your own mind (start watching at 1 minute 10 seconds): do you think Burley was right to tell the volunteers?
If you retweet the story, your "suggested" tweet reads:
April Jones: was Kay Burley right to say family 'don't expect to find her alive'?
You'll notice that the Guardian urges you to start watching at 1 minute 10 seconds. This is deliberate: that way you miss the interview with the spokesman and the crucial moment when Burley calls "Donna" over. If you start watching where the Guardian tells you to, you'll probably miss the fact that Donna was standing just off camera and heard every word. A second woman then arrives, who seems to be Donna's friend and seems to have been part of an earlier interview. Here's a transcript:
Kay Burley: I want to chat to Donna who we were chatting to a little while ago. You've heard the news.
Donna (choked voice): Yeah, he's just said. ... (breaking up) I'm sorry.
Woman 2 (off): What's happened, what's happened? We haven't heard.
KB (awkwardly): OK, I didn't know you hadn't heard.
W2: No, we hadn't heard. We've been helping ... [indistinct]
KB: OK, let me just tell you what we've heard from the police - is that it's now become a murder investigation. And they have spoken to the family and they don't expect to find her alive. I'm sorry to have to tell you in circumstances like this. Would you like to say anything or…
W2: If they haven't found her, there's a chance… (the rest of the interview is Woman 2 expressing continued hope).
That's very different from how the Guardian presents it. According to the Guardian, Burley "chose – live on air" to break the news to these women. This makes it sound like she deliberately sought them out for that purpose. But she was clearly surprised to learn that the women didn't know and was momentarily at a loss what to say. She is offering them the chance to terminate the interview but is interrupted by Woman 2, who is keen to have her say.

Donna said, "Yeah, he's just said." So Burley didn't tell her. The second woman says, "We hadn't heard." 'Hadn't heard' is the pluperfect tense, meaning she has heard now – before Burley tells her. So, contrary to what the Guardian says, Burley didn't "choose" to tell either woman the news, and she didn't do it accidentally either. Donna learned it from the spokesman, while her friend learned it either from the spokesman or from someone else off camera. 

So the Guardian is either lying in an attempt to blacken a competitor's star reporter, or it put the video up without watching it and relied for its analysis on Twitter. We can discount the latter option, because whoever wrote the un-bylined story tells us exactly where to start watching so we get the most damagingly misleading impression possible of Burley and Sky. The Guardian even adds an extra dishonest twist, saying "both women struggled to offer a coherent response" when the second woman is perfectly coherent and is keen to offer her view on camera.

The manipulation by the Guardian of its readers doesn't stop there. Compare how the Guardian reports Burley's words with what she actually said to the volunteers:
"they [the police] have spoken to the family and they don't expect to find her alive" (Burley)
"Burley chose … to tell two volunteers searching for April Jones that "having spoken to the family" they "don't expect to find her alive"." (Guardian)
There's a slight misquote - "have" becomes "having" - which enables the newspaper to give the impression that Burley spoke to the family privately and is now telling the volunteers, whereas she quite clearly said that the police had spoken to the family.

The Guardian implies that Sky is ghoulishly exploiting this tragedy. Its readers, who are invited to comment below, are far more explicit, since they are as bad as Twitter users when it comes to hysterical, ill-informed abuse of people they don't agree with:
My God, the pits…
…cruel and cynical…
…crass insensitivity…
Unnecessary, underhand and despicable…
A new low for the Murdoch empire… 
etc, etc
The Press Complaints Commission's guidance says: 
"In cases involving personal grief or shock, enquiries and approaches must be made with sympathy and discretion and publication handled sensitively. This should not restrict the right to report legal proceedings, such as inquests."
Since these two women were volunteers and not family, I'd question whether the guidance even applies here. Even if the women hadn't already heard the news (which they had, albeit only moments before), there's nothing wrong with a reporter clarifying the facts with two members of the public who have volunteered to be interviewed. What was she supposed to do? Tell them to wait till they could read the story in tomorrow's Guardian

I'm surprised so many people are upset that news organisations supply news to members of the public. It seems to be symptomatic of the "Sky = Murdoch = Evil" attitude that abounds post-Leveson, where even a picture of Murdoch rescuing a kitten* would be met with howls of rage from "sickened" Twitter users.

Was this a shameful piece of reporting? Yes, but by the Guardian, not Sky. It told at least two deliberate lies in order to whip up a hysterical response against a competitor, adding the reaction of Tom Watson, who has campaigned against the Murdoch media for nearly a decade and is hardly an objective voice. 

Saying "make up your own mind" to readers is truly ironic, considering the way the paper has cynically tried to manipulate their reactions from the start. 

Moral: Ethics exist at the Guardian, as long as they can be exploited for competitive advantage

*Disclaimer: Image might have been manipulated