Time for a mea culpa over my piece last week about research into the way journalists’ brains work.
My first two paragraphs said: “New medical research suggests that UK journalists have lower levels of executive brain function than other groups, making them less able to suppress bias. The study suggests this is driven by high alcohol and coffee consumption, limited time given over to mindfulness and lack of breaks.”
After a period given over to mindfulness I have to admit that high alcohol and coffee consumption may have made me unable to suppress my bias towards stories which make a good headline on this one.
Brian Deer, the investigative journalist who uncovered the MMR scandal, said in the comments that the research was “…contrived with the knowledge that journalists would give free publicity to the researcher, who sells her services as a leadership coach. Pity Dominic fell for it with that intro.”
This was a real piece of research, based on interviews with 31 journalists who also took blood tests to assess their cortisone levels (an indicator of stress), filled out food and drink diaries, wore heart-rate monitors and completed a “brain profile questionnaire”.
But does all that justify my intro?
Not according to Deer who, it must be said, would know better than me.
He told me: “There were just 31 journalists and no control group, too few subjects and not enough variables.
“When you think about how varied journalists are. We live in era where the greatest journalist who ever lived was AA Gill who was a completely different kind of person.”
Deer notes that Dr Tara Swart said that high alcohol consumption was impairing the “executive function” of journalists’ brains, but noted that the study found they were drinking an average of 16 units per week versus the government-recommended limit of 14.
He said that you would only need one “complete drunk” in a group of 31 to skew the figures.
Deer said: “She’s done the absolute minimum amount of work you would need to do to set up an event like that to generate the press interest she got.”
He added: “It’s all a lot of hocus pocus.”
The research was unveiled at a London Press Club event in the Corinthia Hotel where Dr Swart is neuroscientist in residence and has designed “brain power” menus which include such delicacies as Green Tea Veal Fillet Paillard with Spinach and Puy Lentils (price £28).
Formed editor of the Scottish Sun Jack Irvine also commented on my story: “A study of 31 is ridiculously small. There appears to be no control group as baseline or comparison.
“It did not mention shift work which is well known as major factor in physical and mental health. Conclusion – if you are going to carry out a study on the stresses facing journalists, do it properly. Failing that have another drink.”
When I put Deer’s concerns to Dr Swart, she said: “The study was based on a programme called Leading Sustainable Performance which I have run with leadership teams as part of my advisory work with banks and large corporates. Therefore I was able to draw comparisons based on my own observations and past experience of the programme and respective results.
“Due to the nature of the study we did not require a study control group as we intended to test the status quo amongst journalists, not a reaction to particular behaviour or lifestyle changes. However, many of the suppliers of the elements of the study had large databases we could compare group results to. We chose to select a small sample size because the research was undertaken as a pilot study and there may be scope for further research in the future.
“I would like to add how inspiring it was to see the genuine meaning and purpose that journalists attach to their jobs, helping to support the high levels of mental resilience evidenced in the results of the study.”