Stylish correction from the Observer readers’ editor

October 14th, 2007 by Ben Goldacre in danie krugel | 70 Comments »

I went to a lecture by the Freakonomics guys a while ago, and someone asked about the routine inaccuracy of news stories in the media. Look, said one of them (although I’ve got no idea who): the thing about journalism is, people expect it to be a true account of the world, but we’ve forgotten what the nature of journalism is. A reporter isn’t a superhuman essayist researcher, they are your surrogate, your proxy. When there is a fire on your street at two in the morning, and you can’t be bothered to go out in the rain, a reporter goes along in your place, and tells you what’s going on, but he only does what you’d do: gossips with the neighbours; gets a word or two from whichever member of the emergency services happens to be walking past; and passes that on.

Sometimes I wonder if we are at fault for expecting newspapers to be accurate.

Anyway, I think this from the Observer’s Readers Editor (reposted below) is quite stylish. News runs fast, papers get thrown together in a hurry, I guess ludicrousness can get through in all fields, and this was just one silly little news story.

Although my heart has rather hardened since reading the Mirror on Krugel:

Varenda Gouws, 45, said Krugel led her and husband Willem on a wild goose chase after son Rayno, 20, went missing last year during a hiking holiday. She gave Krugel a hair from Rayno’s razor. He fed it into his Matter Orientation System, that he claims combines DNA testing and GPS – satellite technology to track down missing people anywhere in the world.

“First Krugel told us Rayno was still in Knysna so we went to Knysna. Then he said he was in Port Elizabeth 150 miles away so we went to Port Elizabeth. Then he was in East London so we went there. Then he told us ‘No, he’s in the Transkei.’ It was an endless track. We drove through South Africa for 4,300 miles. He absolutely convinced us saying ‘Rayno is moving’. He said he must be in a truck or a car because he was moving so fast.

“Every time we left our jobs and packed up and went to these places and put articles in the newspapers. It cost us a fortune. But it’s not the money, it’s the mental torture. Being told your child is all right, he’s moving around. We thought, ‘Why doesn’t he contact us?'”

Rayno’s remains were eventually found eight months after he vanished in a forest outside Knysna. It is thought he died from a snake bite.

Varenda said: “It was clear that he had been dead for eight months because there was no flesh on the bones and there were ferns growing through the body.

“But when I phoned Danie to tell him, he was really aggressive. He said it was not possible. He blamed me.

“He said ‘This is a lie. Nobody can tell you how long a body is dead’.

“He didn’t want to hear he had made a mistake.”

It’s hard not to be moved, and I guess I’m as much of a sucker for tragic stories as the next tabloid reader.

But look. It’s great that they sorted the silly story about the man with the magic box. Now somehow, just maybe, the Observer could finally do something, no matter how late in the day, to put the record straight on their infamous and entirely fabricated MMR scare which appeared on the front page, and produced two bizarre non-corrections before simply disappearing unannounced.

I wouldn’t say this if we were talking about MMR fantasists at the Daily Mail: but the Observer is a proper newspaper. To me this seems like an extremely important story with very serious public health implications which could be simply and thoroughly put to rest.

But I’m not a journalist, and I guess I have to accept that there are some things which I simply don’t understand.

The readers’ editor on… DNA and the hunt for Madeleine

Stephen Pritchard
Sunday October 14, 2007
The Observer

Journalism has never been under such intense scrutiny as it is today. Readers can no longer be handed tablets of stone by the established media that then retreat behind high defensive walls at the first sign of attack. There is nowhere to hide. The internet bursts with information, laying all reporting open to instant verification, refutation, analysis and criticism.That criticism can often be shrill, intemperate and inaccurate, but it can also be devastastingly effective in unpicking flawed stories.

Last week, under the heading ‘Forensic DNA tests “reveal traces of Madeleine’s body on resort beach”‘, The Observer reported as fact that ‘traces of Madeleine McCann’s body were found on a Portuguese beach weeks after she was reported missing’ by retired South African police superintendent Danie Krugel ‘using a combination of Madeleine’s DNA sample and GPS satellite technology’.

Krugel was said to be ‘from the University of Bloemfontein’, giving the impression that he was an academic, and to have had success in tracing for South African TV five girls who had gone missing in the Eighties.

Bloggers were quick to condemn the paper for giving credence to the efforts of a man whom they said was at best a crank and whom, they claimed, may impede the search for Madeleine with his ‘hocus-pocus’ technology. Readers wrote to complain that the paper gave the firm impression that a forensic expert had found and analysed a DNA sample.

Krugel is no scientist. He is actually director of security at the Central University of Technology in Bloemfontein. He claims to have developed a device that uses a single strand of hair to trace the whereabouts of missing people – ‘the sort of thing that you expect to find in a science-fiction novel’, as one blogger put it.

A transcript of the South African TV programme reveals that Krugel led searchers to where he believed the six (not five) girls were buried, but excavations found bone fragments from four males and two females and no conclusive DNA match could be made.

The story noted that Krugel had spent four days in Praia da Luz, the resort where Madeleine went missing, following a request for assistance from her parents, Kate and Gerry McCann. Our reporters learnt this from a conversation last Saturday with the family’s representative, just a few hours before the paper went to press.

They tried without success to contact Krugel and, working under pressure, reached instead for that double-edged sword, the internet, where they found several references to his past activity that appeared to lend credibility to his claims.

They now both agree that, at the very least, the piece should not have turned Krugel’s supposed findings into concrete fact and should also have included a considerable amount of critical comment about his methods and ability – points that could also have been picked up in the editing process.

It’s also disappointing that this appeared in the newspaper that was first to discount the wilder DNA theories that swirled around the Madeleine inquiry last month, theories that are now largely discredited.

reader@observer.co.uk

Very nice.

What’s interesting to me about the development of blogs (and developing Pritchard’s theme) is that while on the one hand, bloggers are regularly pointing out how totally bogus the content of newspapers can be, at the same time, all kinds of people pop up on the internet who are actually quite reliable, like, oh I don’t know, me, or some of your other favourites.

That’s interesting because it represents an increasing sophistication in our sense of authoritative sources. In the past there was a blanket “it’s in print therefore it’s this true [holds out hands]” (or “false” if tabloid).

With blogs, people develop a more naturalistic sense of authority: good bloggers link directly to primary sources, so you can see if we give a faithful account of their content for yourself; we also link to the arguments made by others, so you can see if we’re strawmanning them, misrepresenting them, or responding only to peripheral points while neglecting the meat of their case, again, all for yourself. And crucially, over time, you can develop a sense of whether we are morons or not, individually, for yourself, and maybe stop checking our working.

This transparency and referencing is a huge feature and something blogs share with academia, but not with mainstream media, who could always previously rely simply on their natural authority. There’s a pleasing symmetry in the way that the erosion of this authority is coming from the source which also models, at its best, an alternative way of working. Viva.

Although I also like newspapers, especially when they have (a) amazing photos (b) vision (c) funny people and (d (most importantly)) interesting essays I wouldn’t have thought to look for myself. That last one, if I think about it, is the reason why I still continue to buy newspapers, as a routine: as a kind of targetted aggregator which will throw up some interesting wild cards, because I already have access to the entire world, but I need someone to pick out the fun bits. It’s also why the free sheets are basically useless to me.

So newspapers, think of yourselves as, er, text jockeys, spinning hot… tracts. And be better.


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70 Responses



  1. jackpt said,

    October 14, 2007 at 12:49 am

    Do we expect newspapers to be accurate? I think you raise a valid point but I think we should expect them to be responsible. I think, like Peter Parker’s granddad said, with great power comes great responsibility. It could be argued that journalists only have great power because of the way we regard them (unlike Spiderman) and in that regard we share the blame.

  2. pv said,

    October 14, 2007 at 2:04 am

    I do expect the news media to report accurately and I do expect them to verify what they state as fact insofar as it is humanly possible. What I don’t expect them to do is, in the absence of information, make stuff up. And make stuff up, and making absurd extrapolations from unreliable or virtually no data, is what most of them have been doing for years.
    The consequences in other areas of idiot reporting, away from science reporting, are obvious to anyone who knows anything about public relations and the encroachment of public relations techniques into all aspects of Political and industrial life. We, the public, are as much to blame for being willfully ignorant and buying into so much journalistic hyperbole. The relentless persecution of easy targets, teachers, doctors, clergy and anyone in public life, with salacious, frequently exaggerated and often false accusations, exaggerated disaster stories, Diana crap, conspiracy drivel, freak shows, and speculative frightening and fantastic health claims masquerading as fact are the things the public queues up to read – like gawping motorists slowing down on a motorway to get a glimpse of the carnage of a pile up on the other carriageway. You might say the spectacle of press has replaced the spectacle of the public execution. We complain about the shit they write (and much of it is exactly that), but shit is what so many of us public want to read.

    Rant over.

  3. Acleron said,

    October 14, 2007 at 7:39 am

    If a snake oil salesman makes a profit selling worthless potions to a gullible public he is blamed and censured and the buyers are considered as victims. What is so different about journalists peddling sensational and incorrect articles for profit. In a perfect world everyone would be able to make informed decisions about what they buy or read but this is a far from perfect world in that respect.
    It is a worrying trend that newspapers, who do affect public opnion, are increasingly ignorant of scientific matters, especially in the fields of health and medicine.

  4. Gimpy said,

    October 14, 2007 at 7:54 am

    You get the impression from that correction that proper journalists, with degrees in journalism and everything, hate bloggers. It’s also interesting that when Ben writes the right type of story he is a journalist but when he criticises fellow journalists he becomes a blogger.

    It is still a rather half arsed apology as there is no mention of the word ‘sorry’.

  5. bazvic said,

    October 14, 2007 at 9:04 am

    There should be a difference between the expectations for the way current affairs are reported and how matters such as science and medicine are reported.

    Current affairs are just that, current. Limited, changing information. However with science and medicine the facts or arguments and the evidence supporting them is fairly static, but needs time and expertise to understand and translate to the readership.

    However it appears these skills are missing from most journalists that write for the national newspapers. They appear to prefer to copy from other sources assuming that the source has done the necessary verification. Which given what they are doing is to say the least naive.

    It is not uncommon for an article to start off in New Scientist and to appear in the science collumns of papers (and BBC ) over the next few days. What is equally ammusing is that mistakes in the orignal are also propogated.

    It is just like a viral e-mail.

    An example of the international dimension of this sort of thing. Today Le Monde has an article on “Mobile phones cause brain cancer”. One of the sources, an article in the Independent.

    www.lemonde.fr/web/article/0,1-0@2-3244,36-966211@51-966318,0.html

    This gives the appearance of multiple ,independent sources for facts, so it must be true.

  6. MJ Simpson said,

    October 14, 2007 at 9:43 am

    Problem is: the vast majority of people don’t read blogs (I only read two – this one and another on movies). To the average punter on the street, it still holds true that ‘if it’s in the papers, it’s true’.

    Realistically, how many people who buy and read the Observer are going to look at an on-line comment about something, whether from a reader or the paper itself?

  7. Mojo said,

    October 14, 2007 at 12:26 pm

    Dean Morrison said, “The givaway weasel words form the “Readers Editor” were these:

    “They tried without success to contact Krugel and, working under pressure, reached instead for that double-edged sword, the internet, where they found several references to his past activity that appeared to lend credibility to his claims.”

    Presumably they also found other references to his track record of predatory activities upon the grieving – but chose to ignore them.

    I always assumed that serious papers like the ‘Observer’ had editors who insisted on a modicum of fact checking – at least for the front page – and held lazy or credulous journalists to account.”

    It’s exactly the same excuse they used last year after the Malyszewicz/MRSA fiasco:

    www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/story/0,,1795170,00.html

    Pritchard even mentions there that criticism of Malyszewicz was available in the same Google search results, and that “a call to our health editor or science editor” would have produced reliable information.

    Don’t they ever learn?

  8. Ben Goldacre said,

    October 14, 2007 at 1:07 pm

    i think it’s fair enough to say that newspapers are a first draft in a hurry, and you go back and correct the bits that were wrong.

    that’s what they’ve done here and with malyszewicz, and plenty of other stories.

    what i don’t understand is why the observer haven’t issued a clear correction and retraction of their fabricated front page scare story about MMR. instead of a simple correction, there were two non-corrections that made it worse, and then the article just disappeared unannounced.

    i don’t understand why peripheral fruitcakes like krugel and malyszewicz deserve clear corrections, while that MMR piece was handled so differently.

    there must be a reason.

  9. spk76 said,

    October 14, 2007 at 1:47 pm

    Isn’t the reason that it’s now all in the hands of the lawyers? If the Observer made any further comment, let alone a formal apology over their MMR lies (and thus admitted liability to slander, defamation or whatever), it could have potentially serious legal/libel ramifications. Far safer just to expunge the story from the database, pretend it never happened and end it all in an underhand out of court settlement where no one admits anything and the truth never needs to come out.

  10. maninalift said,

    October 14, 2007 at 2:06 pm

    Mojo (#9): Absolutely right. The internet may be a double-edged sword but any half-intelligent person should know how to hold it by its handle. OK I took the metaphore too far. A journalist doesn’t need to be a “superhuman” but they should have SOME idea of how to weigh-up evidence. I mean, if someone’s claims seem suspicious you don’t just pick out the first few results from google and say “oh yes he made similar claims in another newspaper a few years ago he must be ok”. A crude approach would be to google “Danie Krugel fraud” – it doesn’t take much.

  11. schrodingerspig said,

    October 14, 2007 at 2:07 pm

    Not that I have any love for politicians, but if an MP had produced such a gaff, there would be howls for apologies and resignations by the papers.

  12. spk76 said,

    October 14, 2007 at 2:22 pm

    Really? That’s a shame. I thought Fiona Scott might be pursuing this. I know libel actions can be punishingly expensive but it did seem she had a strong case.

    Maybe it’s just that journalists are even less likely than politicians to admit they have made a mistake and apologise. Better just to sweep it under the carpet and forget it ever happened, rather than issue a very public formal retraction. They are journalists and newspaper editors after all, not scientists or journal editors.

  13. Ben Goldacre said,

    October 14, 2007 at 2:28 pm

    i think one problem is that by issuing prominent retractions of silly stories like the krugel one, you actually bolster the authority of the paper overall, and contribute to the idea that the paper is not a rough first draft but that it is meaningfully revised. that’s why it’s a particular shame to correct a silly news story about a man with a magic box but not a front page MMR scare story which has been shown to be – as far as anyone can determine – complete and utter tosh.

    there must be a reason why they have not corrected or retracted the MMR piece.

    i wish i knew what it was.

  14. Ben Goldacre said,

    October 14, 2007 at 2:40 pm

    maybe, but i cant think of any real major consequences for the observer of issuing a clear correction and retraction of their front page MMR piece. given that it is such an important public health issue.

    there must be a reason why they do not correct or retract it.

  15. mikestanton said,

    October 14, 2007 at 2:46 pm

    When I asked for a copy of the article after it had been taken down the Observer told me they could not supply me with a copy for legal reasons.

    My guess is their legal team told them to get rid of the evidence as a precaution and now they are hoping everyone has forgotten about it. As if.

    Meanwhile elsewhere in blogland one of the bad science posse, the Quackometer is having a spot of bother with the Society of Homeopaths.

    “My web hosting company Netcetera have received a complaint from the legal representation of the Society of Homeopaths about this posting. On the request of my hosting company, I have taken down this post while I try to understand the concerns of the Society of Homeopaths.”

    But you cannot keep a good blog down and Sharon over at The Voyage has reposted it.

  16. kim said,

    October 14, 2007 at 2:58 pm

    As a journalist, I have slightly mixed feelings about this. I agree that reporters, particularly on daily newspapers (though The Observer is, of course, a weekly) are under tremendous pressure: people are often expected to knock out several stories a day, so sometimes will only have an hour to write a story.

    On the other hand, if you have any sense at all you’d realise that the Krugel story is ludicrous. Even a person without very much knowledge of science could have seen that his claims were completely barking.

  17. mikestanton said,

    October 14, 2007 at 3:04 pm

    Stupid lawyers! I do not know how popular the Quackometer is. But according to David Colquhoun the homeopathy and malaria post is now reproduced in full on 28 blogs and counting. Trust me to go away for the weekend and miss all the fun.

  18. Fralen said,

    October 14, 2007 at 3:53 pm

    Several senior people at the Observer have a strong personal and ideological commitment to the idea that MMR causes autism. It’s the same at the Daily Mail. “Family reasons”.

    Everyone on Fleet Street knows that about both papers, it’s no excuse but it’s the reason why you will never see a correction for that fake MMR story.

  19. jodyaberdein said,

    October 14, 2007 at 4:05 pm

    Dare I suggest that it is because what matters is not what is correct, but what your readers feel ought to be correct.

    You don’t want to go sending people off to buy a more left wing paper next Sunday because you too have sided with the vaccine peddling establishment. On the other hand you can afford to be wrong over a quack trading on misery, infact you’d better get on the acceptable side before the lid is off the box so to speak.

    Although come to think of it I’m not sure what paper they would turn to in disgust.

  20. jackpt said,

    October 14, 2007 at 4:18 pm

    Fralen, if that’s true that would contribute significantly but they’ve done the same thing with other issues. I can remember the lengths Demon had to go to when The Observer said they were “key links in the international paedophile chain”. I still think that the bigger the mistake the worse the potential consequences for them, therefore a retraction is less likely. Not just for them, but all news organs. The way that sad case Tom Stephens (Norwich prostitute murders, he didn’t do it) was treated by all major news outlets was FUBAR but I don’t recall any retractions anywhere. Still, nobody died, which is probably debateable re. reducing uptake of MMR vaccination.

  21. Ben Goldacre said,

    October 14, 2007 at 4:42 pm

    hahah that’s amazingly interesting isn’t it, look up Krugel on Google and you get a whole bunch of critical blogs, but mainstream media talking about what a genius he is. wow. that’s like a little work of art all in itself.

  22. Ben Goldacre said,

    October 14, 2007 at 4:43 pm

    i think we should be honest though, that bloth blogs and mainstream media are a broad church, we just have higher expectations of the media, i guess because we pay them? or because they set themselves up that way with the posh fonts and the brass-heavy music before the news?

  23. Gimpy said,

    October 14, 2007 at 4:53 pm

    I think why we have higher expectations of the media, or at least why the media have higher expectations of the media, is because journalists are unionised. The NUJ has clear guidelines on standards and behaviour so that would imply a certain standard of reporting. Of course it doesn’t and the NUJ are as rigorous as the SoH. But it should. I’ve called before (not entirely seriously) for ‘Journalist’ to become a protected title like Doctor or Professor. Calling one a Journalist would indicate proper professional accountability for ones writing and fact checking. Can’t see it happening though. Maybe we should set up a union for bloggers instead with proper enforceable standards. :)

  24. jackpt said,

    October 14, 2007 at 4:55 pm

    Unless you’re an uber blogger the potential audience is much smaller therefore the potential damage from mistakes reduceds That’s why I’ve got higher expectations of the newspapers. Their readership is larger and often reliant on them for facts. That will change in line with more widespread internet skills. Blogs are not yet in direct comptetion with newspapers but will be and they should be a wake-up call for journalists to do things better than the best bloggers or perish in the future.

  25. woodchopper said,

    October 14, 2007 at 5:59 pm

    Ben – I don’t think its a matter of double standards. Bloggers spend a lot of time criticising other bloggers.

    I think that some peoples’ relationship to the media has been changed (ie bloggers). Previously, we tended to be passive consumers of the media, and our only outlet was to try to get a letter published, or moan at our mates down the pub. Setting up a print zine is a lot of hassle.

    Now, people can actively criticise what they read or see, and publish it on teh interwebs. It has become more of a two way process.

  26. Ben Goldacre said,

    October 14, 2007 at 6:00 pm

    to be honest, i think that newspapers do have a role (i’m less sure about factual television, although it’s great for sport and films).

    more than that, i think we should all participate in thinking about what that could be. essentially newspapers continue to be viable and produce interesting stuff because they have resources. if we considered them as a collectivist entertainment and information project, what would we want them to spend the advertising and cover price money on?

    i realise “the market” should sort this out, but i get the feeling that papers are slightly floundering/panicking/wondering.

    i think the “trusted aggregator text jockey who comes up with interesting features articles you wouldnt have thought to seek out yourself” idea of mine is one, and i think they obviously have a role in news gathering, although the endless replication may not be necessary (it may have a policing role).

    there will be more, but we should come up with them.

  27. jackpt said,

    October 14, 2007 at 6:08 pm

    Woodchopper: I’ve been hitting refresh because I wanted something to reply-to because I thought of what you said after I posted the comment :). It’s also the case of who reads the blogs, because a blog may have comparitively few readers but have readers that matter. I write anything that comes to my mind on my blog, it’s fun (I like it that way), and it’s low profile (I like it that way), but I’ve gotten emails from certain people and thought “wow! that’s cool *they’re* reading it”. Then felt pressure and freaked out.

    I think blogging could replace newspapers because of advertising. It’s not there yet but already bloggers like Perez Hilton (celebrity news) are making serious cash from the process. If in the future bloggers are getting large, newspaper sized reading figures, and revenues from advertising, they will effectively become newspapers thus replacing the trad. I expect this will happen as more people learn how to use search engines and the like.

  28. buffalo66 said,

    October 14, 2007 at 9:11 pm

    I think blogs have already surpassed the traditional media for science reporting, probably because the people who write in decent blogs like this one often have expertise in the subject they’re writing about.

    Ben – you asked what role newspapers should have in the future. I really liked the idea you mentioned a few weeks ago, that they should employ many more editors, to commission articles from experts who really know what they’re talking about, rather than journalists, who are always going to be winging it to some extent.

    The excuse for inaccurate journalism that you mentioned earlier (that a journalist is just a proxy who does what you would have done if you could be arsed) is lame in the extreme. The argument seems to be that you shouldn’t expect a journalist to be better at finding things out than a regular punter – that journalism is essentially an unskilled job. It’s like saying that you shouldn’t expect a mechanic to be skilled at fixing cars – that mechanics are just proxies for people who are too lazy to get their own head under the bonnet, and that we’re asking too much to expect them to have a set of skills which enable them to do a better job of fixing cars than most people could do themselves.

    With science reporting, the journalist’s job is particularly easy because, rather than requiring Woodward-Bernstein style investigative techniques, they can just phone or email the scientists whose work they’re writing about, and they’ll usually be delighted that someone is taking an interest. It’s easy to check the facts, yet most science journalists don’t seem to do it.

  29. Ben Goldacre said,

    October 14, 2007 at 9:35 pm

    i guess it was really just saying that our expectations of news journalism clearly have to be less than perfection.

    and thanks, i really think that “more DJs fewer session guitarists” model was a winner for new papers. i mean, fewer journalists, and more editors sorting out articles from a wider pool of contributors with specialist knowledge but less explicit “writing ability”.

  30. buffalo66 said,

    October 14, 2007 at 10:15 pm

    “i guess it was really just saying that our expectations of news journalism clearly have to be less than perfection.”

    sure – as someone who’ll spend weeks writing a ten-page scientific paper, i have a lot of respect for someone who can turn around an article in an hour or so. Clearly, the extremely tight deadlines imposed on journalists will reduce accuracy, but it is still quite easy for a journalist to check the facts when writing about science.

    The one time I did any newsworthy research, most of the stories in the major newspapers bore little resemblance to the research; the Times reported precisely the opposite of what we’d found. One exception was Roger Highfield, writing in the Telegraph. He kept phoning back to check his facts, and wrote a really accurate article as a result. So it can be done.

  31. Ben Goldacre said,

    October 14, 2007 at 10:24 pm

    i think that’s great. never met roger highfield, should do, and congratulate him on being good.

  32. Ben Goldacre said,

    October 14, 2007 at 10:44 pm

    no no you’re all wrong thinking we need science journalists who know about science.

    look.

    some humanities graduates were all congratulating each other about it in oxford just the other day.

    doctorofjournalism.com/?p=39

  33. Gimpy said,

    October 14, 2007 at 10:52 pm

    found this in the Observer archives. Not sure if it has been mentioned already?

    observer.guardian.co.uk/focus/story/0,,647859,00.html

  34. dermot said,

    October 14, 2007 at 11:40 pm

    Jackpt,

    Seeing as we’re talking about accuracy I feel I should point out that it was Peter Parkers Uncle Ben who has the “with great power…” quote attributed to him
    (o;

  35. pv said,

    October 15, 2007 at 12:38 am

    You have to feel sorry for the editors, poor things. All that space to fill, nothing much to fill it with and no time to find anything. And you just can’t get staff who can work “under pressure” these days, can you?
    If the Daily Rags were honest they’d be issuing a single sided A4 sheet every day, and the red tops would be in 24pt Comic Sans with headlines in 100pt Gill Sans Ultra Bold, and include the obligatory horoscope, picture crossword, giant cartoon and semi-naked girlie.
    The problem is they set themselves up to be founts of all knowledge. They make bold claims in their headlines – the bigger and bolder the better. I’ve never seen any disclaimer printed on any newspaper stating that the information contained therein might be complete drivel, because they haven’t got the time nor wit to check stuff.

    I think our expectations of journalists and their editors should be much higher not lower. It isn’t the job of the public to sympathize when they make extravagant claims and louse it up because they can’t get their collective act together to check things. I mean, I can make up my own fantasy stuff, I don’t need to pay a beer addled hack or some puffed up media celeb to do it.

    Rupert Murdoch’s empire has how much money?

  36. IrritatedInsider said,

    October 15, 2007 at 12:43 am

    Thank you Gimpy. I didn’t realise Observer staff had been so “open” about their views. In that case:

    Almost everyone from the news and editorial team with children have given them single jabs, that is true, and almost all privately from a man called Dr Raymond Halvorsen in Bloomsbury. He is the very same doctor mentioned in the famous Observer MMR story, he is peronally well known to senior members of staff, and it is an open secret that he was the source for that story. Make your own mind up about why the Observer have stood by the story, despite exposing themselves to ridicule over it. This has caused serious ructions. Some people have very deep beliefs about MMR and decided they know better than doctors and scientists.

    Ben knows all this already, I know two people who have already told him, and he will almost certainly delete this blog. So I am posting it in the middle of the night. Oops!

  37. Sili said,

    October 15, 2007 at 2:05 am

    Ooooh – I can’t wait to see *that* on Madame Arcati.

    I’m glad I kept pressing F5 to get the updates.

  38. buffalo66 said,

    October 15, 2007 at 7:23 am

    Geraldine Bedell’s comments in that Observer article said it all really:

    “I am completely bemused by the science … What does make me angry is the Government’s patronising attitude: you parents can’t possibly make responsible decisions.”

  39. buffalo66 said,

    October 15, 2007 at 7:31 am

    Thanks, IrritatedInsider. I seriously doubt that your post will be deleted. We’ve already seen what happens when important blog posts are taken down due to legal action – they pop up again in dozens of places, generating far more publicity than the original post. But it’s on my hard-drive, just in case!

  40. Gimpy said,

    October 15, 2007 at 7:38 am

    IrritatedInsider, interesting. Explains the relentless single jabs line the Observer have taken since at least 2001. Hell, there are several Leaders calling for it over the years.

    Buffalo66, there is a difference between preserving a post that is backed up by verfiable evidence and one that merely repeats gossip. What you need is proof…………..

  41. woodchopper said,

    October 15, 2007 at 7:45 am

    IrritatedInsider – hope you don’t get into trouble.

    Anyway, as I’m a complete nerd I have just quantified the comments in Gimpy’s article. (Ovbiously this isn’t a reprisentative sample etc etc etc). The person that just criticised Blair was excluded.

    We have:

    Reject the MMR – 8 people
    They were described as:
    Feature writer
    Sub
    Feature writer
    reporter
    Sub
    Manager
    Sub
    sub

    Accept the MMR with reservations – 3 people
    Sub
    Reporter
    sub

    Support the MMR – 6 people
    Researcher
    Sports writer
    Arts writer
    Science writer
    Travel editor
    editor

    8 writer/researcher
    9 editor/manager

    Of those, it is interesting that the writers and researcher generally supported the MMR (3 reject, 4 support, 1 support with reservations). Also, some very strident support from the MMR came from the arts and sports writers.

    Among the editors and manager support was much weaker (4 reject, 2 accept with reservations, 2 support).

    Given that editors weild a lot of power in newspapers, but don’t have to actually findout stuff for a living, this is quite interesting. Perhpas thats where criticism should be directed, instead of the writing staff.

  42. woodchopper said,

    October 15, 2007 at 7:47 am

    Arse – can’t count. 5 editor/manager reject the MMR.

  43. Gimpy said,

    October 15, 2007 at 7:52 am

    woodchopper bear in mind that the article is years old so some have movewd on (and their opinions may have changed). However i did a little digging and tracked the movements of certain people to other papers where a strong anti-mmr line is evident………perhaps even stemming from the time the person moved there……….

    I might write this up over the next few days if i can find something really juicy.

  44. Gimpy said,

    October 15, 2007 at 7:55 am

    Oh and Irritated Insider you mean Richard Halvorsen, Daily Mail favourite? He is known to the forums.

  45. buffalo66 said,

    October 15, 2007 at 8:50 am

    @ gimpy (#50): “there is a difference between preserving a post that is backed up by verfiable evidence and one that merely repeats gossip.”

    i just think it would be a pity if IrritatedInsider’s post were to “disappear”, that’s all. I agree that one whistleblower’s accusations don’t amount to irrefutable evidence but, in the context of that (admittedly old) Observer article, and the Observer’s recent unwillingness to retract a demonstrably false MMR story, I think IrritatedInsider raises some important issues that should be looked at more closely. After all, vaccination is literally a matter of life and death, and if it’s true that the majority of senior staff at a “quality” paper hold views about MMR that have no scientific support whatsoever, we should know about it.

  46. Gimpy said,

    October 15, 2007 at 9:00 am

    56. well I don’t know if it is fair to single out the Observer, there are plenty of people who think the Mail is a quality paper…….
    However, the role of newspapers in starting and responding to irrational public health scares is a subject that should constantly be revisited in embarrassing detail until they either shut up or get their facts right first time. Like you say lives can be put at risk.

    Maybe newspaper corrections should be given the prominence of the original story, the Observer and the Mail running several years of front page stories stating that the MMR does not cause autism and is less of a risk than measles, mumps, and rubella would warm the cockles……

  47. nekomatic said,

    October 15, 2007 at 10:56 am

    >It’s also interesting that when Ben writes the right type of story he is a journalist but when he criticises fellow journalists he becomes a blogger

    mmm, bit like NASA and space missions… when they succeed it’s a ‘scientific triumph’, when they go pear-shaped it’s an ‘engineering failure’.

    >they set themselves up that way with the posh fonts and the brass-heavy music before the news

    FACT X IMPORTANCE = NEWS!!!

    And now over to Collaterlie Sisters for a look at the currency cat…

  48. Ambrielle said,

    October 15, 2007 at 1:23 pm

    I think “but the Observer is a proper newspaper.” needs to be rephrased a little. How about “purports to be a proper newspaper.” or “has pretensions to be a proper newspaper.”

    Maybe I’m being overly cynical, but they seem not to have learnt from past mistakes, worse, the mistakes seem to be getting more common.

  49. emlondon said,

    October 15, 2007 at 1:39 pm

    I think we’re going too easy on the papers, people.

    It is one thing to say that a reporter is a surrogate, who goes where we can’t be bothered; it is another thing to realise that most of us can’t, in fact, get anywhere near the scene of the news.

    Therefore, anyone with an interest in what’s happening on our planet has to place their trust in newspapers to deliver to us information which is vital in making decisions like who to vote for.

    For us to accept that newspapers – with their enormous resources and daily printings – cannot always be relied upon, is akin to saying we don’t mind a little bit of poison in our water supplies.

    This is an information stream that we rely on, and I don’t think that we should be tricked into becoming overly cynical about it.

    Who believes the newspapers? To some extent, we all do.

  50. bob_bura said,

    October 15, 2007 at 1:41 pm

    Maybe the mistakes are not getting more common, maybe there’s just more people picking up on them / with the means to share their thoughts. As an editor myself I do feel a bit for them, but I also think Ben’s being a bit generous calling that column ‘stylish’. It just seems so easy to say ‘this isn’t easy you know, generally we do a fine job and if we occasionally get it wrong then what’s the big deal? You lot will pick us up on it, so the truth will out.’

    The big problem, of course, is that a tiny percentage of the people who read the original piece will see the subsequent discussion and readers’ editor update.

    If, as the readers’ editor seems to be saying, the way that news is gathered, reported and discussed is changing, why not change the way cock ups are reported? Would it really be a problem to put a box on the front page of The Observer saying ‘Madeleine: We got it wrong. See p.36′. They might even sell more papers.

    I just fear that the whole ‘readers’ editor’ movement actually does more harm than good. It gives the appearance of being bothered about these things and having a course to redress, but in practice what’s the actual effect? How many readers get to see the update? Does it make sloppy journalism any less likely?

    As Ben says, we all make mistakes. But this wasn’t just sloppy journalism…surely anyone with an ounce of commonsense would have seen through it? Or at least checked with the family’s representative over whether they had even hired the guy? So once you’ve made a mistake of that magnitude, I think the apology should be proportionate. Not some mealy mouthed analysis deep inside the paper.

  51. emilypk said,

    October 15, 2007 at 2:28 pm

    If these journalists are going to do internet credibility checks perhaps someone should teach them how.

    Step 1: Google name + scam.

    Takes twenty seconds and works almost every time.

  52. Robert Carnegie said,

    October 15, 2007 at 6:42 pm

    There are 552 Google results for my name + “scam” and I haven’t tried to sell -anything-. To be fair, it doesn’t say that I have – except when my name is randomly stolen to sell diet pills, for which I am not really a good advertisement.

  53. emilypk said,

    October 15, 2007 at 7:39 pm

    I am, of course, assuming the journos can read as well as count.

  54. quietstorm said,

    October 15, 2007 at 7:52 pm

    Going back to the frightening ‘Doctor of Journalism’ blog….

    “In short, most journalists view their job as producing news, not public information.”

    Would someone, preferably someone of a humanities bent, please describe to me in detail (although bearing in mind that I can cope with words of more than one syllable!) the distinction between “news” and “public information”.

    I had thought, naively, that these were one and the same thing. After reading some of these blogs I am in danger of equating:

    “news” = entertaining, but it doesn’t really matter if it’s fictional or not

    “public information” = non-fiction, checked information.

    As a newspaper-reading punter, I had (naively, again) thought that most journalists were at least trying to provide us with the latter. If it’s so difficult to produce stories within deadlines then employ more people. Most scientists are quite badly paid already, so newspaper owners wouldn’t break the bank by tempting a few over to science reporting.

  55. emilypk said,

    October 15, 2007 at 9:43 pm

    It does rather suggest newspapers are mainly for salacious entertainment, and blogs for critical analysis and vetted information.

    Which is rather amusing.

  56. Martin said,

    October 16, 2007 at 3:43 am

    Emilypk, I’ve just googled my name + scam and come across some remarkable facts (I’ve never googled myself before).

    I was born in Limerick and have had an eventful life. I’ve been a poet, sailor, sound recordist, actor and producer. I’ve become a District Attorney and been an Air Force Colonel. I own my own funeral home and died due to being given the wrong blood type (handy, owning my own funeral home, I suppose).

    However, as none of the above is true, I think journalists will need to do more than just that.

  57. trickcyclist said,

    October 16, 2007 at 1:22 pm

    How mysterious… The Observer article about MMR posted by Gimpy above (observer.guardian.co.uk/focus/story/0,,647859,00.html) appears to have disappeared! Now why would that happen?

  58. buffalo66 said,

    October 16, 2007 at 2:05 pm

    seems to be back again. maybe it really was just a temporary fault.

  59. emilypk said,

    October 16, 2007 at 2:30 pm

    Holy rampamt literalism, Batman. I also give journalist credit as being able to choose another noun if the name is a common one–I did say “almost every time” after all. Seriously, I think that is checking facts online is a part oof the job they should master the Google Fu well enough to check “Krugel” online and not have him come up smelling of roses. In fact I don’t know what keywords you could have used even a few months agop that wouldn’t have raised a red flag. That was my point, next time I will be careful not to make it by representative example.

  60. RS said,

    October 16, 2007 at 4:05 pm

    Previous discussion of Observer staff and MMR attitudes:

    www.badscience.net/?p=458#comment-14795

  61. pv said,

    October 16, 2007 at 5:37 pm

    emilypk, maybe what Stephen Pritchard is really saying is that they at the Observer aren’t very good with this Interwebby thingy – but then neither is anyone else, so no-one should be too hard on them. Something daft like that, anway.

  62. Ben Goldacre said,

    October 16, 2007 at 9:12 pm

    umm hi IrritatedInsider.

    i guess i’m not going to delete your comment, because that would be melodramatic, but i’m not going to write about it either. i know it sounds spectacularly sanctimonious but i don’t really do gossip.

  63. shoshin said,

    October 17, 2007 at 2:27 am

    Unfortunately because newspapers are usually internationally owned, this piece of rubbish ran as far away as New Zealand, where I live. And we don’t get to see the retraction that was posted in the orginal paper. As a former journalist who bailed for many of the reasons cited above, I know it is all too easy for these stories to get through. Most journos have no science backgrounds or understanding of scientific method. Most junior journos here tend to be young women in their 20s who have finished a bachelor of anything at all, realised they can’t get a job so they do a post-grad journalism diploma. For example, in one news conference the news editor asked us if gifted children were “fast” or “slow”. The main driver in a newsroom is to get a front page story or as close to the front page as possible. Fact checking? That’s a joke as newsrooms are so understaffed reporters are covering several rounds. I now work in communications for a research organisation and make sure I provide all the references, sources and contacts so I can get a reasonable amount of accuracy in the story. Nonetheless, when a major reserach paper was released by one of our scientists, Reuters completely misunderstood it and unfortunately that was the story that ran worldwide!

  64. Diotima said,

    October 18, 2007 at 9:55 am

    When I read a science or medicine article in either the Guardian or the Observer, I always check to see whether it has been written by a ‘home affairs correspondent’ or ‘social affairs correspondent';. Typically when a dubious or ludicrous piece on matters broadly scientific is printed, it flies under such a flag of convenience.

  65. Diotima said,

    October 18, 2007 at 10:17 am

    Ambrielle is quite right. The Obsever, faced with falling sales, is trying to reposition itself as a kind of centre-left Daily Mail, if you will forgive the oxymoron. The Guardian and Observer both follow the Mail’s lead with certain stories, but always add a centre-left frame. I read the Mail online—one might as well know what they think.

  66. Diotima said,

    October 18, 2007 at 2:32 pm

    Martin,
    I am from East Cork (county not city) and once, googling my name, (unusual Irish name as it happens) I found that I was a black rap singer and a Professor of Medicine at TCD.

  67. Martin said,

    October 19, 2007 at 12:57 am

    I thought it might be interesting to investigate people with the same name as me a bit more, but then I realised that if Dave Gorman can only make it quite interesting, what chance have I got!

  68. fiwallace said,

    October 26, 2007 at 12:24 pm

    Is it too much to hope that the resignation of the Observer’s editor might be linked to any of this?

    Oh – he’s being lauded for his extraordinary contribution to journalism.

    Probably not, then.

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