One of the very worst facets of modern journalism is the use of “surveys” as a news item.
Such surveys are nearly always produced by a company with a vested interest and they usually have a hopelessly small survey group, making the “results” doubly pointless. What they are, however, is free and neatly packaged in news language by professional PR staff to make it as easy as possible just to slip into the newslist.
Looking through the Guardian today, I found the best example for some time: “Gay men earn Â£10k more than national average.” It was given a half-page on page seven, and its own specifically produced graphic.
The usual rules apply. The “survey” was carried out by two gay magazines, Diva and Gay Times. What is their vested interest? The entire “conclusion” drawn by their survey is that gay people have lots of money. The Guardian swallows this hook, line and sinker and points out in the very first sentence: “The true power of the pink pound was revealed today…”
And where would you therefore advertise if you wanted to get some of the money off this affluent new social group? Why, a gay magazine of course!
Survey size: 1,118. There are 60 million people in the UK. Taking the other great unchecked figure that one in 10 people are gay, that means six million UK citizens are gay, giving the survey an incredibly accurate representation of 0.02 percent.
But since the survey was of readers of the two magazines what you are actually producing is a survey of a sub-set of gay people – those that buy these two magazines. Diva and Gay Times have a estimated readership of 100,000 – so the survey represents only a 1/100th of this already tiny sub-set.
It is no surprise that the survey gives an above-average wage because these two magazines aim – as most other magazines do – at the ABC1 social groups and professional market because that is where the advertising money goes.
Put simply, the survey says that people that buy Gay Times earn more than the average wage across the whole UK. The same is true of most magazines on the market.
But what puts this survey and news story as a cut above the rest in terms of sheer, unadulterated pointlessness is that its assertions are all obviously, logically and blindingly untrue.
How on earth can you say that gay people earn more? Sexuality has very, very little to do with getting a job. In fact, it is against the law to discriminate against or for people on the basis of their sexuality. Not only that, it is impossible to tell someone's sexuality in the same way you can tell if someone is fat, or black, or has a regional accent.
As such, if you were to take this nonsense survey's “results” as fact, it can only point to one of two things: pro-gay discrimination in high-paying jobs; or a hitherto unnoticed fact that gay people are more intelligent.
The broader question though is why is a newspaper carrying something that is patently untrue when it could be covering all manner of actual real news?