Thursday, August 18, 2011

How the media works. Or Professor Alexander Gordon, the psychologist who never was

Which psychologist has been most widely quoted in the world's newspapers over the past few days?

It may well be one Professor Alexander Gordon - "a chartered psychologist and member of the British Psychological Society,” as most sources describe him.

Which is odd, given that there is no such person.

What happened was that someone from the Daily Mail called the Society's press centre (where I happen to work) and asked for the names of psychologists who might comment on a survey they were reporting. This said that men make up their minds about a potential partner much more quickly then women do.

One of the names that journalist given was Professor Alexander Gardner, and he duly gave him a quote that was included in the story.

Sadly, Professor Gardner's name was misspelt in the Mail and he became Professor Alexander Gordon instead. That is not the problem. We all make mistakes now and then - as readers of this blog will be well aware.

What does worry me is that this story has since gone around the world, and every single instance of it calls the psychologist Alexander Gordon. In other words, all these many journalists have done is cut and past the original Daily Mail article.

This incident is a pretty accurate picture of how journalists work these days - as readers of Nick Davies' excellent Flat Earth News will already know. I shall remember it next time I hear someone in the mainstream media complaining about bloggers.

I only discovered what had happened when the BBC phoned up asking to speak to Professor Gordon and I had to tell them that I had never heard of him. A little research revealed what had happened, and I was able to get Professor Gardner on the radio under his correct name.


Mark Pack said...

Fascinating little case study.

Judging by your screenshot (and also a test search I did) there's a second, and in this case I think much more important, factor at work.

If you look at the other websites which have repeated the wrong name they nearly all are low grade scraper/spam websites which simply lift content from other sites and reproduce it in the hope of getting traffic via search engines and hence earning ad revenue.

That's not quite the whole story (as I see that the Metro repeated the story as did, e.g., an Italian news site - though they credited the story to the Mail) but it's a very large part of it and is a problem about the sort of dodgy websites the mix of search engines and online advertising inadvertently encourage. For those it isn't a story about journalism as they do it for all sorts of content on an automated basis.

Jonathan Calder said...

Whilst dodgy websites do make things worse, the screenshot was just an illustration.

We pay for media monitoring at work and Professor Gordon featured in many (we hope) reputable publications too.