One afternoon, as I was being schooled in the 1980’s, our English teacher asked the classroom audience for the definition of the word ‘ambiguous’. Nobody responded, as the word was genuinely unknown to us. This apparent lack of knowledge about one of the fundamental concepts of good grammar sent poor Christopher Limb into a hot, salmon-faced, fuming rage. That afternoon, we learnt what the word meant.
- Open to multiple interpretations.
- Vague and unclear.
- Of persons: hesitant; uncertain; not taking sides.
Good journalism, especially in the field of current affairs, relies on clear and accurate statements that convey information with no misunderstanding. A good command of English grammar is therefore a prime requisite. However, time and time again, I stumble upon statements that convey or imply rather odd ideas, despite the author’s best intentions, or misuse statistical data to imply sensational notions, which don’t really add up. So here is a list of some examples of the dodgy journalism I’m talking about!
Bad Choice of Word
Rebecca Morrelle – BBC article on Richard I – February 2013
“Although he ruled England, he spent much of his time in France, and was killed there after being hit by a crossbow during a siege on a castle.”
Perhaps it would have been easier to kill him with a crossbow bolt?
Unknown BBC athletics commentary during the Seoul Olympics 1988
“He’s literally eating up the track…”
Erm, no he isn’t. That really wouldn’t be very pleasant!
These can be quite funny. Where a loosely phrased sentence can be technically correct, it can also have a second unintended meaning.
“Urgent: Writing desk for sale from woman who also has a large chest”
Anonymous BBC Journalist – article about old cats – March 2013
“In 2007, a cat in Shropshire called Pussywillow, aged 26, was claimed to be the oldest in Britain, but the world record for the oldest cat ever, was set by Creme Puff who lived with her owner in Texas, USA, until her death in 2005 at the age of 38.”
So was that the cat or the owner who died? Almost implies that the cat is a murder suspect!
Abuse of statistics
Journalists often have a habit of over-emphasising the importance of a statement by using statistics. One simple mathematical calculation often results in that statement having a reduced impact.
Nick Triggle – article on smoking in cars – February 2013
“Just over a fifth of adults smoke and just over a fifth of those admit to smoking in front of their children”
So that’s 20% of 20%. Hmmm, that’s around 5% then. Even smaller if you consider that not all adults have got children (link) – around 65%. And of those that have children, not all of them have cars. (rough poll) – around 80%. This leads us to the rather measly figure of 2%. So this is hardly a big problem then eh?
James Gallagher – Article on Eating Processed Meat – March 2013
“One in every 17 people followed in the study died. However, those eating more than 160g of processed meat a day – roughly two sausages and a slice of bacon – were 44% more likely to die over a typical follow-up time of 12.7 years than those eating about 20g.”
Well it seems that abstaining from sausages may be the secret to eternal life, in this interesting study where only 1 in 17 people die. Basically, no information given about the respective age of candidates, or any underlying health conditions.
For some reason, journalists seem to be prone to making statements about things that are so undeniably true, it’s a sheer wonder how their editor let them get away with pointing out the truism. Such statements can often be paired with more dodgy use of statistics.
Angela Harrison – article on maths education – Marcy 2013
“People who were good at maths as young children go on to earn more than other similar children by the time they are 30, a study has found.”
Surely it goes without saying that being good at ANY discipline gives you an advantage over anyone else that isn’t as good at that skill? People who are good at maths are perhaps more likely to have gone to a good school. Less likely to be distracted by gang culture. More likely to be able to read. Less likely to financially ruin themselves. OF COURSE THEY ARE GOING TO EARN MORE! These kind of statements are so loose. One could say that people that have read Harry Potter have average higher IQ’s than people that have not. This is simply by virtue of the fact that of the people that didn’t read Harry Potter, some of those people can’t even read at all. So it’s no statement on the academic powers of the reading material of J.K. Rowling.
It would be interesting to find out where such ‘studies’ take place. I’d love to get paid to carry out a useless study. Perhaps ‘A study on how pink meat is’, or maybe ‘A study on the foldability of paper’. I’m sure that we could find some positive results in each case and maybe a kind BBC journalist could put us to press!
Unlike academics, journalists are under no obligation to publish their sources, so this gives them the power to make stuff up. Five years ago, I knew a hack working for The Daily Sport in Manchester, and he literally made up his material. In one such case, he was telling us how he wrote a reader’s letter complaining about how Hindu employees in a supermarket were unfairly dispensed from duties in the beef and pig laden meat aisles, because of their religious beliefs. Pretty nasty stuff. He was a nice enough guy. I guess it was just his job to cook up xenophobic vitriol.