Saturday, August 25, 2012

What I’m reading #77

In the comments to What I’m Reading #76, in which I criticised a story in the Sunday Star-Times claiming that people don’t read New Zealand authors, Anonymous writes:
I suppose a) I will be the 100th person to post this link, and/or b) you are already aware of the link, but here is Pia White’s thesis towards a Master of Information Studies:
I have yet to read it, so can make no comment on the strength of the statistics, but I find strange (I may be missing the obvious) is that Ms White called for volunteers to fulfil her questionnaire in May, 2012 ( and the thesis was submitted in June 2012.
I have a MSc (Auck) and by golly, it took me more than a month to collate, analysis, and write up my data. Perhaps I was doing it wrong.
The Herald’s call for volunteers said:
Finally, we have had a request from Victoria University masters student Pia White who is looking for adults aged 16 and over to complete an anonymous 10 to 15 minute survey about their reading preferences and attitudes. The survey can be found at: (please copy and paste to your browser). Participants have the chance to win a $50 Booksellers book token.
Ms White’s thesis thanks booksellers and libraries for circulating her call for volunteers so it wasn’t just Herald readers. But I think we may assume that the respondents were not randomised in any way, were not filtered at all in that clever way statisticians have of making sure that survey respondents reflect the general population. There were 557 participants but only 497 completed the questionnaire (which is no longer available online).

This is not to criticise Ms White, but the SST piece based on her paper is not journalism. As Anonymous #2 said in a later comment :
It was a half-baked, melodramatic article. The reporter quoted English professor Mark William from Victoria University but utterly failed to connect the fact that Ms. White’s research came out of the same university. It also completely misrepresented and overhyped the findings (I’ve had a quick read of the paper) – she doesn’t claim in any way that her survey is ‘representative’ of all NZers and acknowledges the limitations imposed by timeframes and sampling techniques etc. [. . .] 
The reporter was so focused on sensationalising a single point that she failed to give the research due context: it is simply a very small scale exploratory piece which could provide grounding for more rigorous research. And we could hardly expect reporters to focus on (or even mention) such findings as the vast majority of respondents believing NZ fiction was on par with (or even better than!) overseas fiction in terms of quality and originality, now could we?
The story also says that “Only four Kiwi novels have made it to platinum bestseller level” – without explaining what that means or even considering that the list, drawn up by Booksellers NZ, might be out-of date (which it is). 

While we’re on the subject, the list of New Zealand fiction bestsellers that Booksellers NZ publishes each week, and which is the basis for all journalistic comment on sales of New Zealand fiction, is seriously flawed. For example, Emily Perkins’ novel The Forrests does not appear on that list, even though it has been selling by the pallet-load, because it was published in England. It’s the same for Nicky Pellegrino, whose sales figures dwarf anything that has made it to #1 on that list, because she too is published overseas. They are both New Zealand authors, and it is ridiculous and deeply misleading that they are not counted in these lists.

It is not hard to find out these things if you sit down and talk with a publisher, as I did yesterday. They all have the BookScan weekly reports on their computers so can look up the lifetime sales of any title. I learned a lot – much of it surprising, some of it depressing. Most booksellers, I think, can do this too. So any decent journalist should be able to cultivate a source in the industry and get not only data but also context. What I’m seeing is stories either based on a press release or written after firing off questions by email (e.g. the North & South article I fisked last year: I asked some of those quoted in it and they confirmed that was the method used). It is a useless approach – the only way to get the real story is to talk face-to-face with people who will correct your initial misunderstandings and will, in answer to a follow-up question, tell you the important stuff that you hadn’t thought, or known enough, to ask about.

So what I am reading is Flat Earth News by Guardian journalist Nick Davies. Published in 2008 by Vintage, it is an excellent account of why modern journalism is rubbish. Random House is the distributor here and has a few copies still in stock. Highly recommended.


Mary McCallum said...

BRAVO STEPHEN - YOU ARE MY HERO. The sort of journalism you're criticising is typical - unscientific, unsound, melodramatic and ultimately damaging. If only this country could take ownership of its artists and writers and not seek continually to knock them.

Stephen Stratford said...

Thanks, Mary. Print media coverage of books and the book industry is woeful, isn't it, apart from the shining beacon that is the Listener.