Sunday, April 20, 2008

'Quality' And Inequality

Despite the fact that blogging has been around for 11 years now, it seems that some journalists are no closer to coming to terms with the fact that *anyone* can now publish their opinions to the world.

I read an article in the Guardian recently about how the letters pages of newspapers have a superior 'quality of debate' compared with comments threads appended to articles. The reason the quality of debate is superior, says the article, is that newspaper letters pages are subject to editorial control.

'Online services, who thought they could do without editors, are now seeing their merits again. Our job on the letters pages is to do the work for our busy readers,' the Guardian's letters editor Nigel Willmott is quoted as saying.

But I'm wondering if Nigel isn't actually doing his readership a huge disservice. In the free-for-all of the blogosphere, there's almost equal representation between men and women. The Pew Internet survey of American bloggers in 2006 discovered that 46% were women, for example. And when I did a mini-survey of the UK blogosphere earlier this year for my old company, I discovered that of 100 blogs selected at random, 39 were written by women and 38 by men (with the others it was too difficult to tell).

Given that men and women make up just about equal proportions of the population, and given that men and women are more or less equally inclined towards expressing their views publicly, it should follow that the Guardian's letters pages should reflect that kind of near-equality.

But I don't think they do, and now I want to prove it. So, armed with my trusty copy of Microsoft Excel, I'm planning to record the division of representation between men and women in the Guardian's - and the Observer's - letters pages, every day from now on, until either I get bored or the entire Guardian Media Group folds under the AWFUL PRESSURE of my AUDACIOUS citizen journalism.

(Obviously I'm going to be deciding a correspondent's gender mainly from their name, so there are going to be margins of error, and some people only give their initials, in which case I'll just put them down as 'indeterminate'. Bear in mind too that the Guardian, by its own admission, receives 300 letters, faxes and emails every day, so it's not like they've only got a small sample to choose from.)

Come with me then, ladies and gentlemen, on a journey into the psyche of the Guardian's and Observer's letters editors, as they exercise their superior editorial judgment over whose opinion merits publication and whose doesn't:

(With thanks to my brother for showing me how to save an Excel chart as a JPEG.)

NNB Of course, if I'm wrong about my hunch, rest assured I will bake an enormous humble pie and eat it LIVE on this blog.


Fat Roland said...

I'm going to sign all my Guardian letters 'Phyllis McWillis' from now on.

Tara said...

Right on, Patroclus. I'm with you all the way.

leonie said...

this is brilliant.

Christopher Campbell-Howes said...

Yes, great, but why stop there, apart from small considerations like work?

The same exercise applied to the The Times and Daily Telegraph, not to mention the Sun and The Sunday Post, would throw up grist to all sorts of mills.

Semaphore said...

In some senses, I'm all for editing comments, but that's mostly to get rid of the violent and abusive comments the Guardian's articles seem to attract. Oh, and the stupid bigoted people, too. They can go.

BUT I think this is also a really interesting idea. Question is, though - is it that the Graun's publishing fewer women than men, or are fewer women prepared to sit down to write a letter to a newspaper (society having conditioned us not to express our opinions in the same way as men)? Only the Graun themselves can tell us...

collected voices said...

I see what you're saying Semaphore - but the blog comment example suggests that this is not the case. Of course, if women's letters don't get published in newspapers (I've sent a few the Guardian's way with no success), then maybe the women stop bothering to try (I certainly have).

Anyway - great idea for a research project. I'll be following the results with interest!

Dave said...

Of course, now you've alterted them, they'll change their policy (or the genders of the names they chose to append to the letters [which as we all know, they make up for themselves anyway]).

What you should do is go through last year's back copies.

Dave said...

Hang on, some of your givens may not be true.

'Given that men and women make up just about equal proportions of the population' Roughly true: in mid-2005 there are 30.7 million females compared with 29.5 million males.

'given that men and women are more or less equally inclined towards expressing their views publicly' Can we take that as a given? Bit broad brush. What evidence do you have to support this claim?

More importantly, and which you appear to have ignored, what is the split of the readership of the Guardian? If it's not equally split, then the whole basis of your argument falls.

Billy said...

90% of the letters in the Guardian are written by Keith Flett anyway.

patroclus said...

I think Semaphore has the most salient point here - there's no way for us to know what proportion of the 300 letters that the Guardian receives every day are written by women. It would be very nice to know that, because the whole thing does tend to fall down without it.

Dave: Good questions. I do think a 1.2 percentage point difference is as near as really makes no odds, though, and that's why I said 'just about equal proportions of the population'.

Regarding the inclination to air their views publicly, I'm taking the almost-equal division of genders among bloggers to be my basis for that statement.

The Graun says that its readership is made up of 57% men and 43% women, and the Observer 54% men and 46% women.

Billy: Perhaps I will set up a special category for 'letters written by Keith Flett'.

Occasional Poster of Comments said...

"Some of it is interesting; some of it is fatuous, obsessive or insane. What's needed is an editor to filter out the nonsense and put the exchanges together with a bit of shape. I believe that's called a letters page" (Matthew Parris on the comments beneath his articles).

Or why not let commenters vote on the value of each other's comments?

1) It might save letters page editors a bit of time working out what comments might actually be of interest to readers of their paper's dead-tree edition.

2) The letters would probably better express the "personality" of the paper's readership.

3) Some form of user feedback on comments would save the rest of us digging through the avalanche of, yes, fatuous, insane, and obsessive comments in search of the interesting debate so often buried beneath them (or at least that's frequently been my experience of CiF).

In other words, I can see the value of a newspaper's letters page - time saving and quality filtering, mostly - but there's no reason why that filtering should be solely the decision of one person. Not when transferring the democracy of the online debate to the offline edition would take little more than an upgrade to the paper's commenting system.

patroclus said...

But OPC, that would mean that the ruling editorial class would have to - *gasp* - cede control to the amateur masses!

I do actually like newspapers' letters pages - although to describe what goes on there as 'debate' is questionable - it's more 'reaction' than debate.

I just get offended sometimes when I realise most of the letters I'm reading are from men. I get offended by stuff like that all the time, and then I tell myself I'm being silly and there's no such thing any more as a male-centric bias, especially not in the supposedly left-liberal media, but I can't help but have a nagging suspicion that there is. But as Dave and others have pointed out, there are so many statistical factors at play, it's probably impossible to *prove*.

Occasional Poster of Comments said...

>>But OPC, that would mean that the ruling editorial class would have to - *gasp* - cede control to the amateur masses!<<

Damn, my idealism got out again :) I'd tell cynicism to keep a better guard over it, but it would probably just raise an eyebrow and give a hollow laugh.

Actually, I don't very often read newspaper letters pages, so I was probably being idealist there as well in assuming they might contain debate - now I think back, reaction's definitely the apposite description :) And I'd agree, a preponderance of male correspondents was my perception too (always at least one of whom is making some pedantic observation in the belief that this is either funny, clever, or terminal to someone else's much more nuanced and interesting argument).

patroclus said...

I like the voting idea, and I see that in the MediaGuardian at least, a selection of the better comments from the Guardian blogs gets printed in the paper (Mr BC had a moment of glory in there the other week). They're still being selected by an editor, but it's a step in the right direction.

I should also point out that I'm perfectly happy to read letters-to-the-editor written by men. I just don't see why they should always be represented in the majority. Unless there's a good reason for it, of course.

It's like the whole media hoo-ha about the new Spanish cabinet being mostly made up of women. The day that something like that ceases to be news is the day we genuinely achieve some kind of equality, I think.

Anyway, getting on my feminist high horse makes me feel all antagonistic and uncomfortable. I think I'll get down off it now and go to bed.

Occasional Poster of Comments said...

[Sorry, another long comment]

I tend to think that there are two kinds of people that express opinions on public forums: the ones who just want to be right; and the ones who are there for a conversation, and perhaps to learn something. The ones who want to be right have somewhat more at stake psychologically (to the extent that they identify themselves with being 'right'), so they will always try to dominate, and are probably more attracted to the most public and (still) prestigious forums, such as newspaper letters pages (and politics?). Those who want something closer to a conversation will usually try to engage, but are more inclined to just go somewhere else (set up a blog, perhaps) when there's no real exchange to be had, and it becomes clear that there's nothing more to learn.

Erm, that's just amateur psychologising, obviously, and I have no real evidence to back up the following either, but it does seem to me that a greater proportion of men than women fall into that first category; which might explain the gender imbalance on letters pages, does make me think editors might still be needed even with some kind of voting thingy (the first category would probably try to manipulate the votes), and almost entirely explains why I don't often read the letters pages or any particularly long CiF comment threads.

DISCLAIMER: As I was writing that, I just realised that in the absence of any username clues to the contrary I almost always automatically assume that the most ferocious point-missers and intransigent idiots on CiF are male - either I'm biased, or that kind of backs up my argument. Erm, which one is true, I'm not really sure.

Tim Footman said...

Keith Flett is a man, but there's a woman living in his beard who dictates his letters.

This is a brilliant idea, btw. However, I think the essential difference between a letters page and a blog comments box is not one of gender, but of overall effect. The letters page is (or should be) like a movement of a symphony; comments should be like a free jazz workout.

Also, remember that CiF allows all comments to go up, although the moderators will edit or amend them if they break guidelines. As far as I'm aware, all other newspaper 'blogs' (did we ever come up with a name for them? blags?) moderate before they go up, which rather splurges the spontanaity.

(You could drop a line to Nigel Willmott asking him nicely about the approximate gender balance of letters they receive. I'm sure he knows.)

Occasional Poster of Comments said...

Mind you, none of that long comment of mine explains what letters actually get picked for the letters pages...

As well as the gender balance of letters printed, it would also be interesting to know the gender balance in the correspondence the paper receives, then, I guess (as Tim apparently just suggested while I was still typing).

Malc said...

What worries me is the attitude from the media in general that our views need editing.

During a brief spell as a sub-editor on the letters page of my former workplace (the Express & Star in Wolverhampton) I asked how we chose which ten or 12 of the 60 letters in the basket would be published. "Choose the ones that fit the space, but no lefties or other low-life," I was told. I left soon after.

The Guardian may couch things in gentler terms, but they are no less obnoxious and considerably more patronising. I can't stand the smug little rag.

The majority of journalists just don't get blogs. There is a lot of fear in the newspaper industry, jobs and pay are being slashed and the business has maybe 20 years at the most before it disappears. They are floundering around for some kind of control and they see every form of media as a threat.

patroclus said...

Thanks all for your fab comments - I am in the throes of writing another post to address them.

(Actually I wrote another post to address them at about 6.00 this morning, but I accidentally deleted it, grr).

Boz said...

I'm with semaphore - what if they are only receiving letters in the same proportional split of the sexes? Do female readers need to write more letters to national newspapers? Are men less prepared to get over it and let things go? Does the Y-chromosome include a gene that demands everyone stop and listen to us?!

Boz said...

Oooo - and also as someone who frequently sends letters to national papers on behalf of his clients, rest assured the people on comment desk spend their days wading through paragraphs and paragraphs of ABSOLUTE DROSS.

Everyone is entitled to an opinion. If you are going to enforce that opinion on others please make it interesting.

patroclus said...

Haha Boz, me too - I once had the same letter (ghost-written for a client) published on the same day in the FT *and* the Wall Street Journal. I was so excited I accidentally ate my pudding before my main course at lunchtime.

james henry said...

My personal theory is that woman lack sufficient quantities of 'harrumph' to write letters to the ed, but are much happier to comment online where it's a bit more give and take.

patroclus said...

It's interesting because, as Boz just pointed out, I reckon that at least half of all letters-to-the-editor are ghost-written by PR lackeys on behalf of their clients or colleagues. This suggests that many people are writing not because they feel 'harrumph', but because they're trying to get some publicity for their cause or organisation, which to me would actually suggest a more generous proportion of female correspondents.

Online, on the other hand, is probably the instinctive place to go for people who really feel genuinely disgruntled about things. Instant gratification and all that, plus the chance of a good argument into the bargain.

james henry said...


llewtrah said...

Are you only counting letters in the main section of these papers or are you including comments in the other sections/magazines?

patroclus said...

Just in the main section - otherwise I'd never get any work done!