Monday, 25 February 2008

Media Monday: I Divorce Thee

Proof is what separates good journalism from crappy journalism and so let me retroactively apologize for my blog post of a few weeks ago where I criticized British newspapers for printing questionable stories based on self-serving research (last item). I didn't include any specific examples.

I knew, though, that one would come along eventually and sure enough a nice illustration appears in the Guardian today. The story, by legal editor Clare Dyer, is headlined "Mid-life crises pushing couples to divorce, survey of lawyers finds." The article begins: "Growing numbers of people are divorcing because of 'mid-life crisis,' a survey of 100 leading divorce lawyers in England and Wales reveals today."

The quote marks around "mid-life crisis" are just one clue to how wispy this story is. "Mid-life crisis"? That's not a scientific term, not even as precise as "adultery," which at least is a definable act. And in fact infidelity was the most common cause of marriage breakdown--"for the survey's fifth year running"--with "mid-life crisis" on the rise and coming in second. Family strains were third most common.

Funnily enough, there were no quote marks around "family strains." Would a mid-life crisis cause a family strain? Could a family strain lead to infidelity? The story is a mess all around, the data useless for anything more than a frosty, intraspousal breakfast table discussion. Extramarital affairs as a reason for divorce were listed in 29 percent of cases, down from 32 percent a year ago. Surely those three percentage points are within the margin of error. And is that 29 percent of all U.K. divorces or just 29 percent of those reported by "100 leading divorce lawyers in England and Wales"? Why even bother to release something so squishy?

The reason becomes apparent in the third paragraph: The "survey" comes from chartered accountants Grant Thornton and the first quote, in the fifth graph, is from the head of the firm's London matrimonial practice. To me the survey looks like an ad for Grant Thornton wrapped up in the guise of news. And the Guardian leapt on it like Michael Jackson on a Cub Scout.

They're not the only ones. I'm sure by day's end the story will be everywhere over here. That was the case with previous iterations. Last year's news was that private investigators were being hired more often in divorce cases. In 2005 the BBC headlined its story: "Affairs 'main reason for divorce.'" Browsing the coverage of this dubious survey from the last few years we can assemble an Infidelity Metric. Here are the percentages of marital breakdown caused by affairs:
2007: 29%
2006: 32%
2005: 29%
2004: 27%
2003: 29%

To me the headline isn't that there's been an increase in mid-life crises--whatever they are--but that, amazingly, every other year exactly 29 percent of divorces are due to affairs. According to 100 leading English and Welsh divorce lawyers, anyway.

I called Grant Thornton to ask if this annual survey wasn't just a big ad for its services. Of course not, said spokesperson Dee Crooks. "If we were a law firm, you could argue it was 'Come to me, come to me,'" she said. "But [clients] have got to go through a lawyer. We have relationships with lawyers, which is why we survey lawyers. We’re really down at the end of the line. We’re accountants. "

Okay, so a little story like this isn't the end of the world. God knows I've put lipstick on a pig before. But the practice is so common over here that you might think editors would simply bin these press releases when they come in, even those impressively marked "Embargoed until 00.01 hours, 25 February," as this one was. I think stories like this would fall under the "churnalism" heading Nick Davies is on about.

Why Newspapers Are Dying
British presswatcher Adrian Monck had an interesting post a few days ago about why newspapers are withering. It has nothing to do with journalism, he said: "The problems journalists are confronting are to do with the changing social habits of people who once purchased newspapers and were thus appealing to advertisers."

I can't tell whether he thinks the product needs changing--he sort of suggests it doesn't--but surely he doesn't believe we can change peoples' social habits instead?


Candadai Tirumalai said...

During my years in England I used to see every day at least half a dozen people reading their favourite newspaper in concentration over a cup of coffee or tea. They must still be there but perhaps it is a vanishing breed.


Divorce is such a painful subject. To reduce to simply stating that it was due to "infidelity", does diservice to all that human interactions played in it.

feckless man said...

I'm sure that Grant Thornton offers this report simply for the public's good...right! You can bet some PR guy is getting high fives all around for scoring with such fluff. Have the British papers said anything about the New York Times story on McCain's allegedly improper relationship with a young lobbyist during the 2000 campaign? This one is painful to me because it chisels at the Times' credibility and/or motivation, and gives the McCain campaign a platform from which to cry "liberal smear." As a newspaper supporter, I hate anything that gives the nay-sayers an excuse to attack.

SuburbanCorrespondent said...

He's right - it is the social habits. People are used to logging on and getting in touch with the world that way now. So the papers should be aiming their print distribution at the people who can't log on (albeit temporarily) - mass-transit users and moms at playgrounds or fast-food places are 2 examples that come to mind. Actually, they are the only examples that come to mind. Can you think of anyone else?

Adrian Monck said...

A Legal PR called Crooks? You couldn't make it up! Nice post.

Re. changing habits, I don't think we can change people's habits. People are leaving these lovely old products, as surely as they have left countless lovely old products down the years.

That doesn't mean there isn't good journalism and bad journalism.

Some of what I suspect you and I would value is journalism's ability to improve, through questioning, the quality of our public communication.

We need to figure out how we can ensure that in the absence of journalism, a market in public information remains - perhaps a better market than the one we see now. And on my good days, I'm optimistic that technology and invention can create that.

Old Lady said...

Who else reads newspapers? Most people over 60, I suspect. My husband doesn't "do" computers at all. We subscribe to two Washington daily & Sunday papers as well as the NYT...I'm so busy reading, I barely have time to read blogs! And a newspaper on a screen .... not so nice by comparison, in my thinking.

Anonymous said...

Feckless man, you make two assumptions that reduce your argument to mear dribble.

1. That the PR is male

2. That British readers are even remotely interested in the antics of a nation that breeds the worlds dumbest politicians.

John Kelly said...

@feckless man: Yes, there was a bit of coverage of the NYT's McCain story, though not as much as in the States. I don't think the NYT story will affect the race necessarily--those who were behind McCain probably won't be swayed by it--but I agree it gives ammunition to those who see a vast left-wing conspiracy.

@anonymous: "PR guy" is a multipurpose expression referring to flacks of any gender. And whether British readers are REALLY interested in the American presidential race is hard to say, but it's obvious British newspapers THINK they are, or should be. The coverage has been quite intense. The Guardian did a special 8-page Super Tuesday supplement, something I doubt many American papers would do.

@old lady: The problem with people over 60 (whom I certainly hope to join one day) is that they're closer to being ex-humans (and thus, ex-readers) than people, say, 20.

@adrian: I wish you wouldn't use that phrase "absence of journalism." It scares me.