Watching the Press – Notes

Today, at Opentech, I gave a talk called “Watching the Press“. Here are some notes and references to go with the talk.

Downtown Abbey
The Daily Mail claimed that two hours of material were being cut from Downton Abbey for broadcast in the US – because the plot was too complex for US viewers to follow. They mentioned that it was showing on PBS and that PBS didn’t show any adverts. The original broadcast took eight hours, of which two were taken up by adverts.

The Daily Mail story is here. And here’s an interesting blog post from Jace Lacob who explained this in some detail to the Daily Mail reporter.

Salt in Chippies
The Daily Express ran a headline saying “Salt Banned in Chipshops“. They went on to claim that “Salt shakers are being removed from fish and chip shops in a nanny state ruling on what we can eat”. The truth (as explained if you actually read the story) was that one council were suggesting that fast food restaurants might keep the salt behind the counter so that people had to ask for it.

Winterval/War on Christmas
Sigh. This one has run for so long that the tabloids have just been repeating each others’ stories for well over ten years. But there’s no truth at the heart of the story.

Last year Kevin Arscott did a sterling job in researching the full story of these rumours. His report is well worth reading (not that any tabloid journalists will ever bother).

Most tabloid journalists don’t understand science. Therefore their stories are often disastrous. The best example is obviously the tabloid stories which led to the MMR hysteria of the late 1990s. The tabloids still refuse to accept their part in this and still insist on referring to MMR as a controversial vaccine.

Tabloids also give uncritical coverage to pseudo-science. Three stories pulled at random from the Daily Mail.

The best source for research into pseudo-science in the press is, of course, Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science blog.

What has changed?
None of this is new. Tabloids have been doing this for years. So what has changed? I think that the internet has brought about three changes.

  1. The tabloids have large new audiences. Many of us would never pay for a tabloid newspaper, but if the content is available for free on their web site we’ll look at it. This is clear from most Daily Mail comment threads, where many of the commenters will be putting forward views that you don’t expect from traditional Mail readers.
  2. The internet makes it easier to check facts. The journalists don’t often take advantage of this, but we can. See my recent blog post on Google and Adele for a good example of this.
  3. The internet also makes it easy to share your findings about the press. Jan Moir found this out to her cost in October 2009. She described the reaction to her piece on the death of Stephen Gately as “a heavily orchestrated internet campaign“. It wasn’t, of course. But it very easily could have been.

Some Interesting Projects
Churnalism is a web site for comparing press releases with published stories. The similarities can be startling.
Istyosty is a site which caches Daily Mail content so that we can share links without them getting more click revenue.
Last year some of us tried to suggest some improvements to the Press Complaints Commission. See Tim’s blog post on the campaign for more details.

Press Watching Blogs
The Sun – Tabloid Lies : @the_sun_lies
Mailwatch : @mailwatch
Express Watch : @expresswatch
Five Chinese Crackers : @5ChinCrack
Enemies of Reason :
Tabloid Watch :
The Daily Quail :
Angry Mob :
Nadia Knows :

How can I help?
Follow our 3-step programme

  1. Read the tabloids (Google reader is your friend)
  2. Check facts (at least more than the journalist did)
  3. Share your information (online and offline)

Tell us what you’ve found. We’ll help you spread the message.

The press lies to you. Let’s tell people.


  1. “The press lies to you. Let’s tell people.”

    Thanks. Erm, no, really. Thanks…

    And by that sweeping statement, all bloggers are like Iain Dale and Guido Staines Fawkes?

    Perhaps you’ve never bothered with your local paper?

    No, of course not. Silly to ask really.

    And every police officer is a member of the SPG and all students are left wing.

    Fat people jolly? Black people muggers? Foreigners all rapists?

    Just saying, is all, that a Masaratti and a Mini are both cars, but they’re not necessarily the same…

    1. Yes, I simplified in order to come up with an easy slogan. People do that, you know.

      Mind you, I’m not sure that “the press lies to you” is quite the same thing as “all press lies to you”.

      And, yes, I’ve read local papers. Not really sure what your point is. In my experience they’re about as trustworthy as the national press and for pretty much the same reasons.

  2. Jesus Dave, what’s your local paper?

    I know there’s a few rough ones around, but it’s exceptionally rare I’ve encountered any blogger who feels their local press is as bad/biased/bent as the national.

    And yes, I work on a local.

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