Ah, the news outlets in the UK have been chuckling to themselves this morning, thanks to this little gift from the white-coated community. I’m hoping that there might be some defensible rationale behind the research by Cambridge and German academics that yielded this nugget. Hoping, because what’s outlined in The Independent appears to have been – polite mode off now – a waste of time.
The smallish city of Cambridge has honoured us with a stream of outstanding innovation, invention and discovery over the
decades centuries, and an armful of Nobel prizes. Along the way,together with other notable centres of academic excellence, it has shaped out understanding of the perils that surround us, from air pollution and food additives to smoking and drinking.
I think the public understanding of science has advanced enough that none of us would seriously dispute the notion that excessive alcohol, whatever the format, can seriously ruin our day. There’s also enough wreckage in society to have hammered home the point that once a big night out becomes every night out, entire lives are derailed by this bacchanalia.
So why on earth were the intellects of a team of highly qualified researchers, and the associated budget, devoted to researching this guff? This is a bar-room talking point at best, and the outcome of the exercise was bleeding obvious before the project even started. In case you’re still in suspense, the conclusion was that, well, alcohol is alcohol is alcohol. If you drink too much it’s bad for you. Who cares what colour or flavour it is?
Now, I’ll provide a bit of background here and confess that I’m a recovering newsoholic. I absorbed too much of it for a period of 15 years as a journalist staffer with a Major International Broadcaster, and still do enjoy a little news tipple every now and again. I get that it’s a newsroom chuckle. I probably would have felt duty-bound to get it on the shows I put together.
But freed from the staffer’s yoke, I bridle at the churnalistic aspect to this story. ‘Churnalism’, if you’re wondering, was coined (I think) by the rather talented journalist Nick Davies in his book Flat Earth News. Briefly, this is the newsroom practice of swallowing wholesale, and publishing with few changes, the spin pumped out by PR agencies.
Now, newsrooms aren’t the places they once were. The professionals in them are generally expected to do more – often much more – for less, while suffering wave after wave of job cuts and trimmed budgets. In such an environment the cannily scripted news release is often seen as manna from heaven, as quick-turnaround clickbait.
I have to say that there’s a whiff of churnalism to The Independent’s story embedded at the top of this post. Can you smell it? In fairness to the Indy, they aren’t alone: the story has been everywhere in Brit-land today.
As I said, I would likely have fallen in line and covered this myself. The newsroom I worked in was subject to exactly the same privations and pressures I mentioned above. This sort of thing – ready-made fluff landing in your lap – happened 2-3 times every week.
Somewhere in a PR agency a copywriter (possibly a former journalist, now lost to The Dark Side) is laughing at the ease of today’s news coup. Turning academic research into news copy is not always easy. But today was a good day for them. I’m not sure it was so auspicious for the research scientists, who come out of this looking a little frivolous and lightweight. If there ever was a credible driver for the research, it appears to have been jettisoned to ‘sex up’ the press release. And while most people will consume the story without a second thought, I personally feel it’s symptomatic of a broader negative trend in the news industry. Some news outlets will subject this story to more rigorous scrutiny – but most will not.