Monday, 1 November 2010

It's (officially) the most miserable time of the year...

The Daily Express's bizarre obsession with scrapping Greenwich Mean Time continues apace, as does the paper's "interesting" association with the truth. First they warned of diabolical problems to come. Then they claimed that half the population of Britain supported their campaign. Then we informed that the country had been plunged into chaos by the simple act of changing the time on the clocks on the same weekend that we've done so in almost every year since 1916.

Today we get the latest salvo in the Express's fight to scrap a British institution and replace it with something that will bring us into line with Europe (I know, it's very confusing for me too). Not only are we facing imminent doom and the collapse of the nation's critical infrastructure, we're also going to have to deal with a spiralling downturn in mental health. For today, Monday 1 November is - "officially" - the most miserable day of the year.
FEELING glum? You’re not alone because today is officially the most miserable day of the year. As temperatures plunge, clocks go back and with Government cuts set to bite, millions of Britons are slumping into a gloomy mood.

The hook is a survey conducted by researchers commissioned by the Canary Islands tourist board. It found that:
As many as 66 per cent will be depressed today ... with 47 per cent saying they hate this time of the year and 48 per cent say they feel more tired.
So it's official. It has been Proved By Science that putting the clocks back makes you miserable. If I was a journalist working at the Daily Express I'd be pretty glum all year round, especially as the highly skilled professionals there are expected to simply rewrite press releases. Sometimes they don't even bother rewriting their source material - here's the opening paragraph from the Mail's coverage of the same story:
Feeling glum? You’re not alone - today is officially the most miserable day of the year.As temperatures plunge, clocks go back and with government cuts set to bite, millions of Britons are slumping into a gloomy mood, according to a new study out yesterday.
It's one of those classic "spurious survey = easy headlines" stories, and it certainly seems to have worked - Google gives more than 1,600 matches for "Canary Islands" and "Most miserable day", so there's no shortage of churnalists ready to pick this one up in order to fill a few column inches.

As an aside, it's worth noting that in the part of the survey that identified the glummest and happiest parts of the country, Glasgow was home to the most miserable folk and Southampton was home to the happiest. If the change to GMT was responsible for such widespread misery, surely people on the south coast would be the ones weeping quietly in the darkness, while those in the far north were celebrating?

Anyway, back to the survey. The coverage is very clear on the point that today is "officially" the most miserable, as the survey has proved it. But then science has also proved the same fact about another day entirely - for several years now papers have been trotting out the line that the third Monday in January is officially the most miserable day of the year:
  • 18 January 2010 (Mail): If you think life is a grind and you'd rather be doing anything other than going to work, you're not alone. Today is officially Blue Monday - the most miserable day of the year.
  • 19 January 2009 (Express): TODAY will be the most miserable day of the year as workers trudge to offices fed-up, skint and suffering from colds and flu, according to psychologists. Experts pinpoint “Blue Monday” – January 19 – as the point when such things as the credit crunch, worries over Christmas bills and the long, dark winter take their highest toll on Britons.
  • 22 January 2007 (The Sun): TODAY is set to be the most miserable day of the year, a psychologist has claimed. January 22 emerged as the worst date when common reasons for the blues were totted up.
To make things more confusing, just last month scientists proved beyond all doubt that Mondays are not the most miserable day of the week
  • 11 October 2010 (Mail):When Bob Geldof wrote his hit song I Don't Like Mondays, it became an anthem for every office worker who enjoy their fun-filled weekends and hate the beginning of the week and back to the daily grind*. Now a survey using smartphone technology has revealed that Tuesday and not Monday is the day most people feel miserable.
There is nothing the papers like more than good survey story. It doesn't matter how absurd the claim is. It doesn't matter how unscientific the research behind the headline figures are. It doesn't matter if the same paper printed something that directly contradicted its own story a few months earlier. It fills pages, it's cheaper than paying someone to write actual news and, as the Express showed, it can be used as "evidence" to back up whatever crazy campaign the paper is working on at the moment.

But is it journalism? I think not.

I'm often baffled by how this sort of thing fits into the broader media narrative about science. As the likes of Ben Goldacre and the excellent Atomic Spin continue to point out, the media aren't very good with science. Not only do they not understand it, they often like to portray serious and qualified researchers as dangerous cranks when they conduct peer-reviewed research that presents uncomfortable findings (be it on MMR, global warming or a host of other issues). However, they're more than willing to take a random survey conducted by a company that wants people to take holidays somewhere sunnier and deem that its conclusions are "official".

In short, it appears that a fun but unscientific bit of PR spin can be relied on 100 per cent and its findings presetned as fact, but a serious academic study is never to be trusted. It's no wonder so many of us are so miserable.

*Um, actually it was about a schoolgirl murdering her classmates. I'm not sure that's the kind of fun-filled weekend the Mail generally approves of.

1 comment:

enhughesiasm said...

Yes, it is terrible journalism (especially the 58% of our poll agree therefore 29 million people do. *facepalm*).

But, I find myself in the unusual position of agreeing with Express in principle. Check out the faq at lighterlater (the official campaign for this change) - it's a simple change with lots of benefits and very few downsides.

Even a stopped clock like the Express is right twice a.. year, apparently.