There’s an article by Helen Dow currently on News.com.au (originally in Queensland’s Sunday Mail) reporting on some findings from social research consultancy McCrindle Research in Sydney: namely, that Generation Y are losing basic skills of self-care and self-sufficiency. Here are some of the stats from the story:
Only 51% of survey respondents aged under 30 can cook a roast, compared with 82% of baby boomers.
Only 20% of young respondents can bake lamingtons; 45% of respondents aged over 30 can.
Only 23% of young respondents can grow a plant from a cutting; 78% of older respondents can.
And only 40% of respondents under 30 can drive manual cars, compared to 71% of older respondents.
Notice that I have deliberately elided the issue of whether the respondents were male or female, and I have not generalised out from the survey sample to the wider Australian population.
Looking at the stats alone, this could actually be an interesting story about our culture of affluence, disposability and general alienation from the means of production. Unfortunately, this report spuriously claims that these are “female skills”. (No, Sunday Mail, putting scare quotes around female doesn’t absolve you of knee-jerk s-xism, especially when you choose to illustrate your story with goofy pictures of women wielding cooking and cleaning equipment.)
This is a cheap, distasteful reporting strategy aimed at enraging readers who will circulate the story and comment on it, generating advertising revenue. At the time of writing, the story had 88 comments. However, rather than merely getting angry at the perpetuation of these cynically s-xist ideas, it’s important to understand how stories such as this are developed — and to demand better responses from journalists.
This story angle has most likely been generated by a McCrindle press release. The stereotypes about which skills are male and female were decided on by the research company and the angle was packaged in the release.
Although there are no press releases on the McCrindle site pertaining to this research, another similar release came out from McCrindle on November 29, 2010, entitled “Men of 2010”. Obediently, both the Herald Sun (“Modern man is a bit of a drip”) and Daily Telegraph (“Men losing their traditional skill set”) reported on the decline of traditional “man skills”. The Hez story was a straight rip of the presser, while the Tele found a representative man to interview — probably via a site such as SourceBottle.
However, it’s the job of really good journalists to question the way PR-led stories are presented. The principles of journalism prize not taking things at face value: always getting two sides to any story and looking for the deeper causes of a situation. Rather than replicating the angle provided in the release, a much more critically engaged response from the journalist would have been to get on the phone and on the internet, and find out from independent sources whether the information is reliable.
For a start, I’d like to see some corollary statistics about the prevalence of automatic cars on Australian roads, the number of young people living in urban areas without gardens, the number of young people living at home where they’re not primarily responsible for cooking, and the consumer culture of disposability that means we think it’s easier just to buy things and throw them away rather than to make, maintain, fix and nurture.
If it’s difficult to find these statistics via the limited amount of research time that newsroom journalists have at their disposal, then they need to find an expert who does have access to them. A journalist could seek comment from someone not associated with McCrindle — perhaps an academic working in sociology or gender studies, or another social researcher who’s done similar work.
A journalist on his or her toes (and, sadly, they often seem to give this genre of story to female reporters) could even just call Mark McCrindle and ask him, straight up, to back up his claims with quantitative evidence: how did his company assign particular skill sets to men and women? Did the survey respondents themselves associate certain skills with certain genders — or did the researchers design that association into their survey?
This story is the end of a chain of assumptions that nobody has seen fit to question. But the profession of journalism should make assumption-busting its first order of business.