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:
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?