Sunday, 20 December 2009

How journalism works

You're a bored journo scratching around for something to fill some space. You're slightly buzzed on coffee and nicotine, under deadline pressure and the editor (like any other ruthless predator) is not safe to annoy. Deep in the pile of 'desperation stakes' material that totters at the side of the desk, you find a document that summarises recently published academic papers from your local university.

An item catches your eye. It seems some white-coated nutters in the lab have been feeding mice on various vegetables and checking for cancer rates. "The observed incidence of neoplasm in the group fed on parsnips was 0.00002% compared with 0.00001% in the control group."

Your antennae twitch. We're in business. Fire up InDesign. Let's get a good, eye-opening heading.

Parsnips cause cancer, scientists admit today

Nice. "Admit" is always a good one (especially when nobody's ever denied anything). OK, for the body copy, get the important stuff in early on. Obviously the absolute risk is tiny but we can work with the relative risk. Fear sells, and most people can't count past three anyway. "Cancer rates soared by 100% for the parsnip-eaters.... mothers worried... local chefs rewriting menus..." This is easy, you can spool this off by the yard. We'll get some quotes from MOPs (members of the public), and make sure we get the answers we can use by careful phrasing of the question. How about: "How fearful would you be to know that your child is at twice the risk of cancer if you feed them parsnips?" It won't make the editor smile (nothing has since 9/11) but you might get out of the building alive before 9 tonight.

Obviously one thing you don't want to do is contact the scientists who carried out the study. They'll only drone on with all their usual stuff about quoting stats out of context, correlation not being causation and all that. They'll also point out that the feeding rates for the mice were equivalent to a human eating 20 kilos of parsnips a day for 20 years. They have not Idea One about what makes a story.

Once you've submitted your piece, clearly the next thing to do is fire off an e-mail to the Root Vegetable Growers Association asking them for comment. You BCC the e-mail to the ad sales wonks, since clearly the RVGA will be desperate to rescue plunging sales, so they should be good for at least a half-page if not a full. You also have a word with Deirdre, the chain-smoking, alcoholic old tart who writes the 'Auntie Barbara' column. She can start thinking about a nice, commonsense, soothing piece: "no need to panic... importance of a balanced diet... just to be on safe side, perhaps switch your kids to leafy green vegetables". She's a safe pair of hands on that kind of thing.

There'll also be mileage in contacting the local branch of animal welfare activists. Those poor mice...

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