How to satisfy the sleepyheads on national newsdesks

Some newspapers today ran a “survey” showing that we get too little sleep – just six hours seven minutes a night.

“A nation of sleepyheads” said the press release, handily embargoed for Monday morning newspapers, when journalists sometimes have a struggle to find something new to put before the public. Metro, the Daily Mail, the Daily Mirror, the Daily Express, the Press and Journal, the Evening Standard and the Press Association all bought it. 
The claims came from the retailer QVC, which runs a shopping channel (Freeview channel 16) which might itself be marketed successfully as a cure for insomnia. That wasn’t, naturally, the point they were trying to make. The intended beneficiaries were QVC itself, which got a mention in many of the stories, and Northern Nights, a bedding company, which didn’t.
The background to this story, and many others like it, casts an unflattering light on the workings of journalism and shows how quick and easy it is to create and disseminate surveys and how gluttonously they are sucked up by lazy newsdesks.
But first, the sleepyheads survey. It claimed a sample of 3,000 men and women across the UK and generated a “league table” of the most sleep-deprived cities, as well as those that are the sleepiest. Aberdeen was the most sleep-deprived, with an average of a miserable 5 hours 23 minutes a night; in Norwich, the sleepiest, they apparently manage 6 hours 38 minutes.
The average of 6 hours 7 minutes appears low by comparison with a rather more systematic survey carried out by Professor Jim Horne of Loughborough Sleep Research Centre and the Radio 4 Today programme in 2007. A sample of just under 5,000 adults allowed Professor Horne to calculate that men slept for an average of 6.9 hours and women for 7.2 hours.
Regardless of that, the sleepyheads survey’s sample certainly wasn’t large enough to make city-by-city comparisons. The press release gives no indication of the number of respondents from each city, but it can hardly have been more than a handful, if the whole of the UK was represented. It is absolutely meaningless to make such comparisons – but it has a purpose, as we shall see.
The background to the survey is far more interesting than its results. QVC recently recruited a new PR agency, Mischief, to add some zip to its public image. Mischief turned to that unfailing stand-by of the PR industry, a survey.
They chose a company called 72 Point to carry it out. This is a subsidiary of South West News Service, a well-respected local news agency based in Bristol. News agencies earn their money by digging up local stories or editing (not over-zealously) what they find in local papers, and sending the results to national media newsdesks. Any that get used, they get paid for.
SWNS claims to be the largest local agency in the UK and is certainly one of the best. But don’t take my word for it. On its website it quotes a leading journalist as saying (of the news service, not the surveys): “South West News is, by a distance, the best news agency in Britain. Its track record over the past 20 years is beyond compare. Its ability to deliver high quality stories day after day is simply remarkable.”
Who said this? Tony Gallagher, whom the website describes (wrongly) as Deputy Editor of The Daily Telegraph. Wake up, South West News! He’s the Editor now.
The South West is a good area for local news, but SWNS devised an even better way of generating it. Through its subsidiary 72 Point, and a pollster called OnePoll, it can provide “surveys” at the drop of a hat.
Let’s take a look at some recent examples. Today, as well as the sleepyheads survey, 72 Point produced a survey showing that 48 per cent of women had faked an orgasm, and 9 per cent did it all the time. It made the Daily Mail (“Poor show, chaps: survey shows that nearly one in ten women fake it between the sheets”).
On Saturday, we had a league table of the UK’s unhealthiest cities, which was headed by Bristol (“Bristol UK’s slob capital” reported the Daily Star).
Last Thursday we had a list of the all-time favourite children’s stories, featured by The Sun, the Express, and The Daily Telegraph. The same day we were told by The Sun and the Daily Record that the average person spends £2,776.75 a year (a suspiciously precise figure) on keeping healthy.
The day before that, in a coup that included the Daily Mail, the Daily Record, The Sun, the Daily Express, and the Mirror, 72 Point revealed that married couples are at their happiest two years, eleven months and eight days after they walk down the aisle. Daft survey, meaningless findings, gratuitously precise results: meat and drink to today’s media.
And on March 2, the disclosure was that London was the UK’s smelliest city, picked up by the Mirror. All these stories, in a single week! And mostly, I suspect, from the same sample of 3,000 people, since that is the figure most often quoted.
No wonder that the website quotes Chris Pharo, head of news at The Sun, as saying: “OnePoll is a well-respected and valuable market research source that provides not only ourselves, but the entire national news network, with excellent survey-led news stories and stats.”
Or, more unexpectedly, the Central Office of Information, whose anonymous tribute reads: “I was really pleased with the survey results and coverage achieved for the campaign we worked on with 72 Point and OnePoll. They offer excellent value for money and delivered for us.”
The beauty of the business is that South West News has it both ways. It picks up a fee for doing the survey, and another when the story generated is used by the media. And by producing its city-by-city “league tables” it ensures some interest from regional and local papers too uncritical to ask any questions.
Seldom have PR and news-gathering been so cosily tucked up in bed together. But again, don’t take my word for it. Read 72 Point’s website, which claims “No other agency has direct access to a newswire which every media organisation in the country subscribes to...” 
The Survey and Sell-In package – the whole caboodle from design of the survey to the final collection of press clippings – costs £2,500. For an extra £300 you can “incentivise” 72 Point’s panel of respondents – though they already get paid for responding to polls, which are conducted online.
OnePoll says it abides by the Market Research Society code of conduct, but statistical pedants might ask whether panels paid to respond quickly to all sort of questions are truly representative of the public at large.  
Can we blame South West News for supplying a commodity so avidly and uncritically swallowed by so many journalists? It’s not illegal to cobble up surveys out of thin air and then sell them as news. But it’s striking that neither The Times, The Guardian, The Independent or the Financial Times seems to fall for the product quite so often or so readily.
Based on a survey of one (me) I’d say that’s because they have retained a sliver of journalistic integrity.