December 17, 2006

From description of difference to discourse of deficiency

I just got a note from Tony McEnery in connection with our recent posts on the Vicky-Pollardization of British teen English:

Apologies for not replying earlier - your emails were swept up by my over-zealous spam filter (which has to be set to over-zealous to catch even a fair proportion of the spam I get). I clear out my spam on Sundays, hence the email now. The work I did for Tesco was, predictably, confidential. However, you are right to surmise that the work itself was widely misrepresented in the press. I wrote a study looking at difference and, predictably, the press translated that into a discourse of deficiency. If you would like me to comment a little more in confidence I would be happy to do so. Three things I would note, however are:

1.) Tesco was not marketing a product on the back of the report - they wanted to make a charitable donation to schools and used the report to guide the form of the donation. I appreciate that there is publicity value for them in the donation, but nonetheless I am happy that they are making a £750,000 investment in schools.
2.) The original report had a very different slant - if you look at the Lancaster University version of the story you can get something closer to the spirit of the original report. Even there, however, I have had to object to the title of the story (I hope that will be changed soon). See it here
3.) I was dismayed that the Vicky Pollard angle on the story arose and took off, though in hindsight there seems a grinding inevitability to this. I spent the whole day Friday giving radio interviews (26 in all) setting the record straight. Given that I started at 6:40 in the morning at finished at four in the afternoon, it felt something like a penance! I have been promised copies of some of these interviews. If I get one I will rip it and send it to you if you like.

BTW - I thought your blog was both thoughtful and gracious given the information you had at your disposal.

I'm about to be late for a brunch appointment, so I'll limit my comments to the observation that I tried to follow the standard rule of thumb in cases of attributional abduction: "When it's not clear where a piece of media foolishness comes from, blame the journalists".

And I'll quote something I wrote about Glenn Wilson's experience with the "email lowers your IQ more than pot" story:

When a piece of scientific research comes to the attention of the media, those who know it best should make available a simple account of what the research is and what it means (or doesn't mean). If misinterpretations become rampant -- which is just another way of saying, if there's widespread media interest -- then it's in everyone's interest for the authors to address the misrepresentations directly. This clarifies things for the more sensible fractions of the public and the media. And it should also help reduce the "bonkers" factor, since even reporters often use web search before they start making phone calls and sending emails, and if they don't, you can still send them off to read your "what my research is and is not" page instead of repeating the same explanations again and again.

Posted by Mark Liberman at December 17, 2006 09:06 AM