Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Netmums' Answer and the Question of Resonsibility

No, I'm not obsessed about this survey and its popularity all across the established media in the U.K. and even over here, not at all! I could stop any time I want.

I received an answer from Netmums to my question about how to get hold of the newer detailed survey data now that they erased the data that used to be available, the data I used in my posts about the survey. I was told that the new results have not yet been written up. But how then can there be a summary of them?

Then to the question of responsibility. Until the detailed data vanished from the net I would have put all the responsibility on the newspapers and established websites which simply ran with this fantastic opportunity to bash mothers without any proper checkups.

Why them? Because we all know that thousands of websites do reader surveys all the time, surveys which are not scientific, surveys which are not carried out by statisticians, surveys which essentially mean nothing at all. But those surveys don't get covered by the BBC Education section. They are not taken seriously, because they are not intended to be taken seriously.

Everyone knows that those kinds of surveys are not statistically generalizable and that they are not peer-reviewed. But what that means is that nobody knows if they are any good at all. To take a summary of a survey like that and then to splash it all over a newspaper page, with appropriately shocking pictures, is simply irresponsible journalism. It is bad, lazy and misleading journalism. And at least ten sites did exactly that.

Why? Is everything in those newspapers potentially just pure crap? Maybe. But I think the reason for this particular choice had to do with the exciting material on how bad mothers are. That's what makes a journalist's heart beat faster because that is material which sells. It sells both to all those people who love watching mothers get their comeuppance, it sells to anti-feminists who can point out that it's women themselves who cause their own suffering and it sells to the attacked mothers who then go to the comments threads and explain why it's really daughters who are too hard to cope with. Everybody has fun!

What is really sad about all this is that if you study the detailed results carefully, for both mothers and fathers, the one thing you find there is a slight tendency to regard daughters in a more negative light than sons. That is the one result that would have been worth discussing because both parents did it in the survey, though partly due to poor framing of the questions. But that result disappears in the popularizations and the original summary. It is replaced by an insistent focus on the mothers.