"Where else would you go when you have an ax to grind?"

Tuesday, September 21, 2004

How to read a newspaper
Between the lines BBC political editor Andrew Marr has spent a lifetime reading newspapers. In an extract from his new book, he gives some tips on how to sort the facts from the froth
Monday September 20, 2004The Guardian

Know what you're buying
Reporting is now so contaminated by bias and campaigning, and general mischief, that no reader can hope to get a picture of what is happening without first knowing who owns the paper, and who it is being published for. The Mirror defines its politics as the opposite of the Sun's, which in turn is defined by the geopolitics of Rupert Murdoch's News International - hostile to European federalism and the euro and so forth. If it is ferociously against Tony Blair, this is probably because Number 10 has been passing good stories to the Sun. Its support for Gordon Brown was, similarly, driven by the need to find a rival when Blair courted Murdoch. It felt jilted. You need to know these things. You need to aim off.

Follow the names
If you find a reporter who seems to know the score, particularly in an area you know about, cherish him or her. In the trade we generally know who is good. If you are interested in social services and the welfare state, Nicholas Timmins, currently writing for the Financial Times, is essential. If you are interested in think-tank reports and the cerebral end of Whitehall then Peter Riddell of the Times is about the only reporter worth bothering with. But if you want investigative journalism that covers Whitehall, never miss David Hencke and Richard Norton-Taylor, both of the Guardian. Books? Robert McCrum of the Observer writes a weekly column that almost everyone in the publishing world will read. The funniest restaurant reviewer in London? Certainly, the Spectator's Deborah Ross. Best Northern Ireland correspondent? David McKittrick in the Indy.

In a crowded market, it is becoming harder to single out individuals since most fields, from sports reporting to the City or food writing, have two or three top acts. And everyone has their own favourites. But the point is, watch the bylines. If you find a friendly style, someone you grow to trust, treasure the name and follow it. My experience as an editor was that many readers were surprisingly attuned to the work of individual writers they knew nothing personally about. Bylines are often the only signal that gold, rather than dross, lies below.

Register bias
Even when you read the same paper every day, be aware that reporters are now less embarrassed to let the bias show. This is rarely direct party-political bias, but you may find that a columnist is favourably inclined towards one politician - say, that Bruce Anderson of the Independent is generally in favour of the Tory leader of the day, whoever he or she may be; and that Donald Macintyre, of the same paper, scrupulously fair, is generally more sympathetic to Peter Mandelson than most of his colleagues; and that Paul Routledge has a powerful partiality for Gordon Brown. This is all completely legitimate, but worth remembering; it may also point to the source of the story. That matters too: no political journalist in the early 2000s would read a story by the Times's Tom Baldwin without wondering whether he'd been speaking to Alastair Campbell. Baldwin has many sources, but Campbell, in the days of his glory, was a key one, giving that reporter's reporting added interest for the Westminster villagers. Again, worth knowing.

Read the second paragraph; and look for quote marks
Surprisingly often, the key fact is not in the first paragraph, which is general and designed to grab attention. Look for the hard fact in the next paragraph. If it seems soft and contentless, there is probably very little in the story. Similarly, always look for direct quotation. If a reporter has actually done the work, and talked to people who know things, the evidence will usually be there. Who are the sources? Are they speaking themselves? Are they named? Generic descriptions, such as "senior backbencher" or "one industry analyst" (my mate on the other side of the desk) or "observers" (nobody at all) should be treated sceptically. They can be figments of the reporter's prejudices or guesses, rather than real people. If you keep coming across well-written anonymous quotes, be highly suspicious: these are probably crumbling bricks without the straws of supporting fact.

If the headline asks a question, try answering "no"
Is this the true face of Britain's young? (Sensible reader: No.) Have we found the cure for Aids? (No; or you wouldn't have put the question mark in.) Does this map provide the key for peace? (Probably not.) A headline with a question mark at the end means, in the vast majority of cases, that the story is tendentious or oversold. It is often a scare story, or an attempt to elevate some run-of-the-mill piece of reporting into a national controversy and, preferably, a national panic. To a busy journalist hunting for real information a question mark means "don't bother reading this bit".
And watch out for quotation marks in headlines, too. If you read "Marr 'stole' book idea" then the story says nothing of the kind. If quotation marks are signs of real reporting in the body of a story, in the headline they are often a sign of failed reporting. That story may say someone else thinks Marr has stolen the idea for a book; but if the newspaper was reporting that this was really so, those giveaway squiggles wouldn't be there. As with question marks, headline quotation marks are mostly a warning sign, meaning "tendentious, overblown story follows ... " They certainly save my time in the morning.

Read small stories and attend to page two
Just because something is reported in a single paragraph does not mean it is insignificant. Busy subeditors, with their own blind spots and unexamined prejudices, and with limited space, often cut the most interesting or significant piece of news down to a few lines. And for reasons explained above, page two is often one of the richest sources of real, hard news. Here are the painstakingly researched articles and important tales suddenly stripped off the front page by a night editor in the small hours of the morning to make way for something "brighter" that may sell from the newsagent's counter.

Suspect 'research'
Hundreds of dodgy academic departments put out bogus or trivial pieces of research purely designed to impress busy newspaper people and win themselves some cheap publicity which can in turn be used in their next funding applications. If something is a survey, see if the paper reports how many people were surveyed, and when. If the behaviour of rats, or flies, has been extrapolated to warn about human behaviour, check whether the story gives any indication of how many rats, and how much caffeine they were injected with; and then pause for a reality check. If someone is described as an expert, look to see who they work for - and ask, would a real world expert be doing that? Also ask whether they are a doctor, or professor, or simply, "researcher, Jeff Mutt ... "

Check the calendar
Not simply for April Fool's, but for the predictable round of hardy annuals that bulk up thin news lists. Anniversaries; stories about the wettest/ driest/ longest/ wannest spring/ summer/ autumn; the ritual "row between judges" stories designed to whip up interest before annual book awards, and the equally synthetic "public disgust" stories about art shows. Every year there is a slew of tooth-sucking stories about the Royal Academy summer exhibition being a bit disappointing; about the autumn TV schedules being dominated by bought-in US mini-series or reality TV shows; about the disgusting and inane finalists for the Turner prize. You have read this stuff before; you will read it again next year. On a busy day, flick on.

Suspect financial superlatives
Even if the underlying rate of inflation is modest, then in the ordinary way of things, prices for many limited goods - Pre-Raphaelite paintings, or seaside huts, or football shirts, are going to be "the highest ever". For the same reason it is completely to be expected that teachers will get "their highest ever pay deals", however excited the minister sounds about this; and that non-executive directors' earnings will be "the highest recorded", however outraged the minister sounds about that. What is interesting is how these raw increases relate to inflation, and therefore to other prices and to each other. Are Van Gogh prices increasing faster than Picasso prices? Are the superstore bosses being paid more than before, relative to their staff? An informative story, as against a merely sensationalist one, will tell you that.

Remember that news is cruel
Reading the awful things that people apparently say about each other, or newspapers say about them, can be depressing. Is life really so writhing with distaste, failure and loathing? No - only in the newspapers. Acts of kindness, generosity, forgiveness and mere friendliness are hardly ever news; which is why there is a class of readers who turn their backs on newspapers and graze in the sunnier, gentler places of celebrity and women's magazines; or who obsessively trawl favourite internet sites and trusted periodicals to find news sources they feel they can trust, as they cannot trust the press.

Finally, believe nothing you read about newspaper sales - nothing Newspaper sales have been falling in Britain for a long time, and steadily. Yet every newspaper manages to tell a heartwarming story about how successful its sales are, almost every month. Work it out for yourself.

My Trade: A Short History of British Journalism by Andrew Marr is published by Macmillan at £20. To order a copy for £18.40 with free UK p&p, call the Guardian Book Service on 0870 836 0875.