Tuesday, August 30, 2005

How to Write a Feature Article for a New Zealand Newspaper

Follow these simple steps:

1. Pick a topic based on a "current issue", preferably one contrived by the publication you work for.

2. Find an "expert", preferably a tenured academic, preferably foreign (so we know we can take them seriously) and get them to expound at length on the issue.

3. Quote the "expert" verbatim and fill in the gaps with breathless speculation on how "we" might be affected by the issue.

4. Find somebody else to say something as well, to provide "balance" and to prove you've done your research. Always include several quotes, whether or not they cast any light on the question. If really stretched for filler, ask some of your friends what they think.

5. Don't bother trying to string together enough actual facts with sufficient rhetorical structure to present a coherent argument. This is overambitious and should be left to foreign experts.

The latest case study of this approach appeared in relation to the New Zealand "man drought" which has been the subject of much debate and discussion recently amongst Wellington's chattering classes. I was intending to comment on the subject itself (that will have to be saved for a later post) but got distracted by the greater-than-usual mindlessness of how it was presented in the print media.

A couple of weeks ago, a short article appeared in the Dominion Post and on the NZ Stuff website reporting a study by Australian demographer Bernard Salt which established that in New Zealand there are 53,000 more women than men in the 20-49 age group. While interesting, that's nothing that anyone couldn't have worked out by getting hold of a few spreadsheets from Statistics New Zealand--and remember, this is based on the 2001 census, so we're talking about five year-old data.

But naturally it was presented as sensational news. In relation to the finding that the gap was biggest in the thirtysomething age group, with a 9% female surplus, Salt was quoted as saying that "a 32 year-old woman has as much chance of finding a partner of her own age as an 82 year-old woman".

That's actually mathematically false, before you even make reference to the real world. But [sighs], you can be sure that the article didn't manage to make that point.

When the inevitable feature appeared on the front page of the Dominion Post Saturday magazine, it was accompanied by a photo of a crowd of grim-faced, black-dressed Wellingtonians trudging to work, with some of the silhouettes of the men cut out, leaving white spaces. The article then trawled anxiously through all the demographic statistics, enlisting the aid of no fewer than three experts to help us interpret them - Salt, plus Wellington economists Simon Chapple and Paul Callister.

One of the most irksome things about NZ feature writing is the total inability to provide an informed critical viewpoint. So, when the fallacy of the "same chance as an 82 year-old woman" was finally uncovered two-thirds of the way through the article, it was only thanks to Callister, who "bears some good news: it's not quite as bad as [Salt] portrays it". While both the 32 and 82 year-old groups have around 3,000 more women, the gap is 9% for the 32 year-olds, but 58% in the much smaller 82 year-old population.

If that seems blindingly obvious, the article outdoes itself at the end of the paragraph, offering the following insightful conclusion:
"And a 32 year-old woman has the option of an older partner".
You don't say? Dear me, he could even be younger. Haven't you watched Desperate Housewives?

The three "experts" posit a range of theories to explain the demographic gap, including the higher male mortality rate and the supposition that "young, mobile males are more likely to be undercounted at the census than women" (it's true, male suspects he didn't fill in a census form in 2001). The gap is biggest--43%-- in Asians born overseas, which Callister suggests could be due to women coming to NZ for domestic work or mothers accompanying school-age children.

Salt is sure that the demographic gap in both NZ and Australia is due to the globalised labour market and a slightly higher rate of male migration to the larger economies. He may well be right, though the blatant misrepresentation of the statistics quoted above doesn't exactly inspire confidence in his methods; his view that "women have closer family ties and are more likely to settle down in their home territory" just seems like prejudice (as a random sample, off the top of my head I can think of three female and no male friends who have married foreigners and settled overseas) .

The truth is that nobody really knows. Nor do we know what proportion of people are actually single or "in a relationship", what their goals and preferences are, nor anything at all about their behaviour.

This does not stop the economist wonks from making speculative pronouncements about the future of relationships in New Zealand. Callister informs us solemnly that "I have heard things like, 'There's more choice out there, I can leave you'...You might see people doing that sort of thing more". Chapple meanwhile, "reckons power dynamics within relationships could shift, with educated men in short supply and able to get a better deal from their partner".

This is a slightly scary insight into the thinking of an unreconstructed economist, who believes that the world is the sum of self-interested rational calculations, free from the complex cultural reality in which people actually live, and unencumbered by those nutty things called human emotions . Next time you feel like complaining about being governed by schoolteachers and sociologists, remember that the country used to be run by Treasury types like these.

You can imagine how they'd approach it:
"I'm leaving you, Mary! The demographic balance is in my favour, interest rates are steady, and Jupiter is in Aquarius". If these guys have wives or long-term girlfriends, the unlucky women should seriously consider preemptively ditching them.

In the competition to manufacture psuedoscientific garble, it's Salt who takes the cake:

"Mr Salt says there's already a phenomenon of what he calls "time-share men", who engage in sequential monogamous relationships. "The woman will have a relationship for a few years, then retreat and live by herself for a few years. He forms another relationship straight away and she is out of the ring for a while" ".

I don't know the guy, so I don't know whether he is taking the piss, or whether this is wishful thinking on his own behalf. But Puh-lease. Do I need to point out that both men and women forms relationships, end them, stay single or start new ones for a whole range of reasons, almost all of which have nothing whatsoever to do with a small demographic imbalance. And again, in my personal experience, exactly the opposite pattern as that described above tends to operate.

However, the most annoying thing is not that what these guys say--I'd be happy enough to pompously waffle on too, if someone asked me. What's really tragic is that they're quoted as if they're offering unadulterated pearls of wisdom; the writer completely fails to note that they have no more idea about the future, or even the current, dynamics of relationships than herself, you, I, or the postie. NB: these guys have crunched some numbers. Although they may have "Dr" in front of their name or work for an international consulting company, they do not know everything.

I promise I will comment further on the "man drought" question at a later date with some speculative and personally-skewed theories of my own. In the meantime, here's a plausible one. Men, biologically slightly more predisposed to extreme reactions, have about a 9% higher rate of being driven over the edge by the inanity of what passes for public discourse in this country, and consequently deciding to end it all.

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Kevin H said...

Simon, if you didn't do so at the time it may now be too late, but did you try to condense your thoughts into 200 words or less and fire them off to the Editor? In particular the points made in your last 3 para's, while cynical, make the case very well.
However, I cannot let your hurtful aspersions about my dear Treasury colleagues go unchallenged. God help us if we let the gamut of human emotions influence good public policymaking. The very basis of economic analysis is that people are self-interested rational actors (not to mention well-informed). And of course we know these assumptions to be true. All I need do is look around me now and see serious heads-down automatons for miles, churning out brilliantly rational neo-classical Virginia School theory for the benefit of us all. (I think someone in the basement presses a button each morning and fires them into life). It is a joy to behold their mental calculation of utility as they try to decide between a muffin consumed now or 2 sandwiches consumed later. Fine people in whom I would trust with my life. Now, where's that cliff?

Jack Yan said...

Simon, I didn’t read all the way to the end but suffice it to say that New Zealand newspapers are mostly merely supermarket tabloids masquerading as broadsheets. There are the odd exceptions. Usually, they are heavily biased toward only establishment ideas. The presence of trivia, e.g. man-drought, is directly proportional to the degree the government wishes to cover up its failings, and the ability of a journalist to do proper research. Consequently, Mr Jayson Blair would be considered a man of strong journalistic integrity here, and promoted to editor-in-chief of a major Australian-owned metropolitan daily “broadsheet” in a heartbeat. (Or so former employees of these newspapers tell me.)

Simon Bidwell said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Simon Bidwell said...

Kevin - think I missed the boat for a letter to the editor there, but I'm still hoping that the DomPost et al will one day acknowledge one of my many travel story submissions, so best not to devote too much energy to taking the piss out of their staff.

Jack - yes, I agree about the
"supermarket tabloids" -- see my post on Dancing With the Stars and follow up.

Anonymous said...

In the same vein as the "man drought" was a similar story of "non-news" about "the demise of the tie" as an item of dress for men. And have you ever noticed how many items in our newspapers are also items of non-news. Just have a look some time at how many refer to things that "might happen" or "could happen". Some of these are supposedly "scientific" and usually look as if they are a thinly veiled kind of publicity for some kind of "researcher" to generate funds to keep themselves in a job. Good on them for trying really, and I guess journalists are generally keen to use material that they don't have to shift out of the office for. Another ploy is to do a "survey" of a few people in the street (there was one the other day on pollution) and then head it up "water pollution rated worst concern" or some such. Maybe instead of travel stories you should try creating some kind of scare story and call a journalist about it.