Dinosaur media and the Internet both suck, a Booktrust story

“Government U-turn over book scheme cuts” blares the Independent newspaper today. Apparently the UK Government decided to cut a scheme that gives books to all children last week, and has now changed their mind in order to decide not to cut it.

I don’t have any knowledge, or a particularly strong view, about how we should best encourage people to read as a society.

I do want to use this as an example, a simple and basic one, of how terrible information flow on the Internet is, and on how terrible modern journalism is. By terrible here, I mean just how utterly our society fails at giving the most basic tools for intelligent people to be able to have opinions based on any sort of knowledge or evidence.

The article, and all other articles I could find easily, fail to answer three obvious questions that even the most basic journalism on this story should answer. And in the modern world, answer means to give hyperlinks to full sources as references.

  1. Where is the announcement that the scheme was being cut?
  2. Where is the announcement that the scheme is not, after all, being cut?
  3. How good is the Booktrust bookgifting scheme? Where’s the research showing whether it is value for money and helps with reading?

A quick search on Google News and Google Blog search finds not a single article with a link to a primary source answer to any of those questions. The best you get is:

  1. The Daily Mail article, Children’s book funding to be cut as Government axes £13m from reading charity, describes the news of the original cut most clearly for me. It says that the first source of the story was Booktrust, and that someone at the Department for Education confirmed it via a “statement”. The actual text of the press release from Booktrust or the statement from the Department seem unavailable. And there is certainly no link to a detailed Government budget spreadsheet or similar, so we could for example put the spending cut into the context of the amount spent on libraries.
  2. Everyone’s source for the u-turn stage of the story seems to be the Press Association article Government in Booktrust U-turn. Again, no sign of the actual text of the joint statement by the Department and Booktrust. A search on the DfE website doesn’t even find mention of Booktrust on the entire site, and the Booktrust blog doesn’t cover it.
  3. The only expert, if anecdotal, evidence on the quality of the scheme that I can find is in the comments on The Bookseller website. There is strong disagreement. Some comments from people working at the involved agencies liking the scheme, one from a librarian and one from a middle-class parent who think it is a waste of money giving reasonably well off people books, several comments describing how there are plenty of sources of money to keep the scheme going. I’d hope a blog search would find some detailed, analytical blog posts from experts in the field, but it didn’t.

I’m struggling to decide who comes out worse from all this. Every single newspaper and blog that I could find on the Internet, for not even taking the time to get basic factual information other than from press releases and statements by organisations. The Government, both political parties running it and Booktrust for failing to publish any information at all about the whole matter. The whole of society for letting our information infrastructure get so bad.

Tactically, I think the Labour party comes out quite well. It has taken merciless PR advantage of the failings of the media and the Government. But strategically it has lost it – it had a chance to persuade me with evidence that Booktrust is a good value scheme, something Labour should be proud of. But it has given no evidence.

Most irritatingly, I’m not even sure if there was a u-turn. From the evidence we have, it could well be a power game where the Government is trying to get publishers to contribute more to the scheme. Or a simple administrative thing – they want to renegotiate the contract, so they said they wouldn’t renew it, and then Booktrust did some PR on that. Or it could be a genuine u-turn – which could be a good thing, depending why they did it. Governments should u-turn, if they’re doing so because they’ve listened to evidence!

With the quality of reporting available, I can have no idea.

So, what do we do about it?

  • We, or at least I, need better tools for finding good information. Yes, I can try reading pay for sources which sometimes dig deeper, such as the Financial Times or the Economist. But they’re not much good here, when I want to respond to tweets about a live political issue. Is there a blog search tool that only finds me good, analytical posts, from people with some knowledge about a field, or the time to research it? If not, perhaps someone enterprising can build it. Perhaps from a large curated list of blogs, perhaps via a new website with a community adding structured commentary to clusters of newspaper articles.
  • We need a much stronger force to stop newspapers, NGOs, political parties and Governments from making statements without giving detailed references and sources. It should be totally unacceptable, as unacceptable as it would be in an academic paper. The Media Standards Trust are working on a nice tool which I hope will shame newspapers that just copy and paste press releases. But that’s not enough. Maybe we could have a boycott, or maybe we could get the Google News people to drive traffic only to newspapers that give proper references. Ideas please!

The particular example of Booktrust is just one example. This problem happens to me nearly every day. I get two partisan views of every political issue – ones I could have guessed from the headline. What I want is deeper understanding, sources I can trust to be finding the evidence that will help society take the right decision as a whole.

Happy New Year!

9 thoughts on “Dinosaur media and the Internet both suck, a Booktrust story

  1. Thanks Sam for the link! I’d gone the “blog” rather than “news” route on the Booktrust website and hadn’t found it.

    Books are generally good, but the media landscape is much more complex now – should we be giving children DVDs of lectures instead? Or organising school trips to libraries, where everyone has to get a book out? It’s not a good enough argument to just to say that cutting any vaguely good sounding scheme must be bad.

    My other morning thought – it is Christmas, so people are doing other things, and this particular case has less analysis round than it might otherwise. That said, the original story was on Wednesday, so people had a couple of working days. And it is a problem I get with lots of stories (most, really).

  2. A good rant, and I totally agree with it. My pet peeve is along a similar line – news organisations, particularly the Radio 4 news I find, will give you “something has been reduced by x” but not give you the total, so the value of x is meaningless, but x is picked to be sensational – 25% or £3 million pounds, but unless you know the base amount (25% of £100 pounds isn’t a huge saving, nor is three million out of a billion) it’s meaningless. And yet they do it constantly.

    If I was being less cynical I’d assume it was because they thought we already knew the missing figure, but I am that cynical, so can only assume it’s because it makes a better headline that way.

  3. Thanks for blogging this Francis! It’s been a busy week for me and I’d seen quite a lot of impassioned (but uninformative) tweets about Booktrust fly by, sounding vaguely interesting, without me having the time to dig deeper. So it’s a story I’d specifically noticed the lack of facts about too, but as you say, this is actually quite common these days.

    I’ve found http://fullfact.org/ can be useful for background to a certain class of news article.

    There seems to be some research out there (I searched for “booktrust bookstart evaluation research”) such as http://www.bookstart.org.uk/show/feature/Bookstart-impact-evaluation. I may be somewhat conservative in thinking that reading is the right thing to encourage and books the most accesible form of reading for deprived households, but it would be interesting to see longitudinal studies of comparisons of such book programmes with others as you suggest. Nonetheless, funding for such research is likely to be cut to the bone in the coming years…

  4. Books are sent at 1 and 4 years. I’m not entirely sure that these are the prime audience for lectures or class trips to libraries. They’re a somewhat different audience.

    A statement has now appeared (this morning) on the bits that came out yesterday:
    http://www.booktrust.org.uk/show/feature/Home/Booktrust-funding-update

    A timeline can be seen on their twitter account: http://twitter.com/#!/booktrust

    The research Laura mentioned is also linked from that page.

  5. Great post Francis — this is something I also think is very important (and get annoyed about). I’ve been wondering for a while about a sort of ‘Adding the Source’ webapp/service where one can automatedly or by hand add sources back into news stories: http://ideas.okfn.org/ideas/13/adding-the-source-to-news

    I was therefore very interested to see Laura’s mention of http://fullfact.org/, and I know (as you mention) that the MST were doing something but not sure what the progress is on that.

    I’d actually be interested in building something here and I don’t think it would be *that* hard (I think a javascript bookmarklet that let you annotate a news story would be nice).

  6. Something I forgot: also useful to look not just at news but other sources of information. Here’s an analysis and critique of reports (some in newspapers, some elsewhere) about the NAFTA trade agreement and related arbitration decisions that I wrote back in 2002: NAFTA Investor To State Cases – Setting the Record Straight.

    As that page shows plenty of people seemed to be writing about the cases without having actually read the judgments in any detail …

  7. NewsTrust has crowd sourced rating of journalism

    “Our web review tools enable people to rate stories for accuracy, fairness, sourcing, context and other core journalistic principles — and become more discriminating news consumers in the process.”

    http://newstrust.net/about

  8. Julian Todd suggests to me that we could crowd source more specific things than just links to sources.

    e.g. Gathering which GLIDE number (an international disaster identifier) a news story is about. Then you could detect what types of disaster in what parts of the world are under-reported in what other parts of the world.

    http://www.glidenumber.net/glide/public/about.jsp

    Likewise, could specifically link to Bills of Parliament from all over the world, and spotted types of legislation that are under-reported.

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