Saturday, 23 January 2010

Metro's headlines: sensationalist, unethical and simply not true

My morning routine is, like most people, the same every day: get up, watch Neighbours, eat toast, get dressed and go to work. I don't normally read the free Metro; instead, I'm usually working, playing games or watching a DVD.

The paper - which is distributed to almost three million people daily - is still visible over countless shoulders. That made yesterday's front page headline, "Video gaming leads to surge in rickets", hard to ignore.

It is, of course, sensationalist bullshit in the finest Daily Mail/Express tradition.

Take the study where the story came from: conducted by two scientists from Newcastle University and published in the British Medical Journal, its conclusion was that sedentary lifestyles and a change in diet means that kids aren't getting enough Vitamin D which, in turn, has resulted in an upswing in the number of rickets cases. Simon Pearce, Professor of Endocrinology, went on to recommend that the Government combat this by putting more Vitamin D into common foods, like milk.

I know that it's bullshit because a colleague of mine, Joe Martin, spoke to Professor Pearce, and found out that he "didn't do any research to link video games to rickets".

Furthermore, the study was conducted exclusively on children under 20 months old - far too young to play even the most basic of Wii titles, let alone game for long enough to cause rickets. "Our intended message", he said, was that "vitamin drops and food supplementation might...ensure children don't get rickets". Very different, and Joe's very illuminating article can be read over on Bit-Tech.

It's classic sensationalism, and something that gamers are used to. Despite the UK games industry being bigger than the nation's movie industry, games are regularly held up to the kind of negative scrutiny that rarely befalls movies, TV or literature, all of which are seen as "proper" cultural fields in the face of gaming's incorrect image as childish and immature.

Never mind, though; that kind if blind, harmful ignorance will disappear with time, as it did when movies and television were feared as the technological innovation that would ruin children.

What is disturbing, though, is how the story came to be. rather than reporting on real issues - the tragedy of Haiti, or the Chilcot war inquiry - Metro has taken a mundane press release and manipulated it beyond all recognition in the search for a headline. Grip people with an exciting headline and more people read your paper; more readers means that you can charge advertisers more. Advertising is how Metro makes its money. In the midst of this ad-driven process, they've also taken a cheap and unwarranted shot at one of the nation's most popular hobbies.

So, who was it? An eager young reporter, trying to impress his superiors and convinced that yesterday's work represented "real" journalism? A jaded editor, searching for headlines amid the dozens of faceless press releases that clog his inbox on a daily basis? A cynical sub-editor, writing attention-grabbing headlines to spice up a mundane story?

No matter who's responsible, it's still reprehensible, and it certainly isn't news. It is, instead, a cheap headline-grabbing tactic designed to provoke outrage rather than inform, and it's at the expense of facts, integrity and real news. It also makes me glad that I never read the Metro.

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