The new British Social Attitudes survey has been all over the news. Credit is certainly due to the team for putting out a comprehensive, yet easy to understand, set of news releases. Enough detail and quotes to provide a large range of different stories but not so much as to drown journalists in statistical detail.
Yet what is striking about the coverage is just how closely it has followed the story suggestions set out in the news releases. Understandable given the speed with which journalists have had to file their pieces on the survey results, but still striking.
Take the example of the figures showing only 56% of people agree it is everyone’s duty to vote. This, and a comparison with a 68% figure in 1991, has been widely reported, including by the BBC, Channel 4 and The Guardian.
However, we already know that turnout has fallen in elections since 1991. If instead of comparing 1991 with now, you instead look at the full set of figures over the intervening years (and thanks to the British Social Attitudes press team for supplying them so promptly) a more interesting picture arises: the fall in people thinking there is a duty to vote has taken place after turnout in election fell. It’s a consequence, not a cause.
But the figures which reveal that weren’t included in the press releases about the surveys – and no-one in the media has taken this angle. Instead, the only angle reported is the one in the initial press release.
Whatever the current debates about the future of press releases and embargoes, this shows very clearly how the well-crafted news release from a reputable source can still very heavily influence the stories run by the media – even those with full time, expert journalists.