Jan 31, 2011

Loss of basic female skills or loss of basic journalistic skills?

It's the job of really good journalists to question the way PR-led stories are presented.

Mel Campbell — Freelance journalist and critic

Mel Campbell

Freelance journalist and critic

There's an article by Helen Dow currently on (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.

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7 thoughts on “Loss of basic female skills or loss of basic journalistic skills?

  1. Michelle Imison

    Nice post, Mel – I’ve really enjoyed reading your crikey contributions of late.

    However, I would take issue with your description of journalism principles as being about ‘always getting two sides to any story and looking for the deeper causes of a situation’. The ‘two sides of the story’ furphy can sometime be part of the problem: social phenomena (as you then go on to basically point out) tend to have many and varied antecedents. The sad exemplar of this problem is much of mainstream climate reporting, where the mania for ‘balance’ means that there’s a disproportionate amount of time given to vacuous fruitcakes.

    Now you must excuse me, I have a tea cosy to finish crocheting…

  2. Mel Campbell

    You must be aged over 30, Michelle! 🙂

    Yes, point taken about how ‘fair and balanced’ often translates to ‘giving wackos oxygen’. However, a good journalist also confronts tendentious opinion-holders, and asks for backup facts…

    <3 u Tracey Spicer

  3. Meski

    Lamingtons? Don’t think I’ve ever bothered, but I’ve made a variety of other cakes. Lamingtons are so insipid. Roasts? sure. Plants, well there you have me, I’m not exactly a green thumb. Manual transmission? well, yes I can, but I choose not to. But I’m on the edge of boomer age group.

    Did the survey use double-blind techniques? More likely it was yet another push-poll.

  4. Juffy

    “Did the survey use double-blind techniques?”

    Probably not, but I dare say at least some of the “older respondents” group were wearing glasses.

  5. Norman Hanscombe

    I don’t know whether one should be horrified by the revelations, or relieved this is the most serious outrage to be exposed?

  6. scot mcphee

    Is it not also possible that by the time you’re 60 you’ve had a lot more opportunity to learn skills like gardening than a typical 20 year old? I’m 45 and only recently had an interest in such things. Same with the ‘man skills’ stuff – previously my interests were in electronics (as were my professional qualifications…), not DIY carpentry and while I’ve not become a DIY nut just yet, I can see now why a 55 year old home-owning bloke in fact might be interested in such things but a 35 yo not. The research question would have to hinge on whether the older generation had those skills at 25, or acquired them later.

  7. Mel Campbell

    I’ve cross-posted this on feminist blog The Dawn Chorus, and Mark McCrindle has replied in a comment there, pasting in the entire press release that the article in question was based on. It’s more detailed and equivocal than the Sunday Mail story.

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