Epigram Editorial: Sensationalism

Why does it seem like so many major news outlets don’t take their responsibilities seriously?

The media is, for most of us, our primary source of news. Be it via the TV, radio, a newspaper or on Twitter, it is likely that news outlets are our first port of call for information and additional insights into the world around us.

Yet in September, a Gallup poll suggested that in America only four in ten people trust the mass media to report the news fully, accurately and fairly – which represents a historical low in confidence in the sector.

On Monday 23rd November, The Sun ran a front page headline suggesting that 1 in 5 British Muslims’ have sympathy for Jihadis.

This was not the question posed to the 1,003 Muslims phoned. They were asked whether they had sympathy with young Muslims going to fight in Syria – nothing about Jihadis. Only 5% had a lot of sympathy and a further 14.5% had some. So The Sun had its headline, but at best they were economical with the truth.

It later turned out that You Gov, The Sun’s usual polling company, had declined to conduct the poll; they didn’t believe they could accurately gauge opinion in the time available.

Survation, the company who picked up the work, have since said that they ‘do not support or endorse the way in which this poll’s findings have been interpreted,’ clearly disowning The Sun’s reporting of the topic.

the hashtag #1in5Muslims was used on Twitter to highlight the absurdities of the headline

Journalists have a responsibility to provide factually correct information about issues so readers can decide their own opinions based on truth. Accurate reporting should be a requirement for all media, including us, but especially big mainstream papers like The Sun.

Surveys are a fantastic way to garner information and attitudes, but in order to be useful they have to be clear and unambiguous. The Sun’s article not only misinterpreted the results, but oversimplifies a complicated issue to a statistic.

The Sun’s article has reinforced dangerous stereotypes about British Muslims and was irresponsible. Why deliberately misinform your readers? That is not journalism but sensationalism.

The survey question was perhaps deliberately vague – is ‘sympathy’ supporting, understanding or somewhere in between? Fighters in Syria could mean any of at least three different groups, not just jihadis.

Indeed, an article published in Vice written by somebody who conducted the poll clearly demonstrates the extent of The Sun’s misreporting. Not only did the front page come as a shock to the pollster, but they argue that ‘every single person I spoke to for more than five minutes condemned the terrorist attacks carried out in the name of Islam.’

The conversations and opinions which were raised during the ‘badly worded poll’ are not reflected in The Sun’s simplified front page article.

Following the Paris attacks and amid the current refugee crisis, The Sun’s article has reinforced dangerous stereotypes about British Muslims and was irresponsible. Why deliberately misinform your readers? That is not journalism but sensationalism.

The media has a responsibility to provide the general public with accurate information that they can then digest and form opinions from.

This week, our front page story is about attitudes to drugs at the University of Bristol. It is based on a random sample of 292 self selecting students, with clear questions that cannot really be misconstrued.

But The Sun’s front page, if anything, has made me wary of our own investigations – it’s an extreme example, but it emphasises the importance of using data well, and representing the answers accurately.

Nonetheless, I am proud of our investigation into drug use at Bristol and how we have conducted it. I believe that it is an accurate reflection of what happens at our university and how Bristol is perceived nationally (and I definitely wasn’t surprised by the results).

Fundamentally, the media has a responsibility to provide the general public with accurate information that they can then digest and form opinions from. We as a newspaper aim to provide news, features and stories without trying to sway your judgement one way as another.

Of course, we publish opinionated pieces too, but these are based on research and evidence rather than rumour and prejudice. Ultimately we trust you, the reader, to make up your own mind about the issues we raise, based on the facts.

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