IN A WEEK that saw controversial Danish cartoons and the death of the hundredth British serviceman in Iraq dominate the national news agenda, it’s refreshing — or perhaps depressing — to know that another, much lighter story also swallowed up some serious column inches.
The surprising tale of fledgling Tory leader David Cameron’s inclusion — at number 92, just ahead of falsetto troubadour James Blunt and Aussie hellraiser Russell Crowe — in a New Woman magazine survey to discover the sexiest 100 men on the planet earned coverage galore; and not just in the tabloids.
As well as a front-page trail and a double-page spread in Thursday’s Daily Express, the survey gained a full page in that day’s Independent, a page lead in the Star and the Mirror, and also spawned a doublepage debate in Friday’s Mail asking, "Who Says David Cameron’s Sexy?" New Woman’s editor Helen Johnson was also seen and heard touting the readers’
poll’s findings on GMTV, Five, BBC Radio 1 and 2, plus Channel 4 News’s evening bulletin. David Dimbleby even asked the panellists on Question Time if they thought Cameron was sexy.
Less surprising than the blanket coverage of the Cameron story itself is the fact that it’s not alone. In the same way that celebrity content has mushroomed at the expense of harder news, contrived, survey-led yarns are increasingly edging out more organically fashioned stories.
In an age of supposedly ever more sophisticated news-gathering and information dissemination techniques, how are so many survey stories getting in the papers?
Are journalists becoming increasingly lazy and simply regurgitating PRs’ thinly veiled attempts at product placement. Or are the PRs wising up and realising that to win their clients’ coverage they’ve got to devise subject matter that’s going to catch news editors’ attention?
The answer is far from transparent.
A source at the relatively survey-shy Independent accepts that perhaps journalists are less adverse to spoon-feeding than they used to be, especially if the story reinforces the prevailing news agenda.
"The vast majority are truly crap and bite the dust immediately," says our man from Marsh Wall.
"Surveys are obviously treated with some suspicion, though increasingly less so. There’s no specific policy towards including them. Stories tend to be judged on how they fit "in the mix" i.e. a blend of serious and light through the paper; whether they dress up with pictures and whether they are entertaining or important.
"Is it lazy journalism? Of course. But it’s cheap and quick. And you get to put celebs in the paper."
The brain behind the New Woman sexy men survey that so enamoured the nationals was Sue De Vere, an NCTJ-trained former journalist who, for the last 19 years, has been Britain’s leading survey author.
A veteran of dozens of high-profile surveys investigating subjects as diverse as retirement, young women’s lifestyles and teenage emotions to cosmetic surgery attitudes, sleep and female bodies, De Vere is verging on evangelical about surveys.
"I don’t see myself just as someone who just does surveys," she says, "I’m a news creator. I set the news agenda, raise awareness and launch campaigns. And, as a former journalist, my clients know that they’re getting authoritative, reliable research from me, not just product placement puff.
"What I do is all about ‘capturing the zeitgeist’, running ahead of the pack and highlighting the next big thing. My philosophy is to do the whole job for the journalist, then it is up to them what they decide to take from it. I give journalists everything — the stats, the story, the quotes and the pictures."
So was De Vere surprised to see the New Woman survey create such a buzz?
"Not really. As soon as I saw David Cameron’s name on the list I knew there’d be big interest. And as far as politics is concerned, I have no doubt that Cameron has benefited more from being the 92nd
Sexiest Man than any other policy announcement he has made to date."
A scan of the other survey-led stories making the news during the timeframe reveals a bizarre mix of the politically relevant and the socially irrelevant.
It’s hard to argue that a survey highlighting the differences in the global cost of living (covered by The Guardian, The Telegraph and the Daily Mail)
wasn’t of some social benefit. But did the Daily Star really need to keep us informed — courtesy of exhaustive research by Dolmio — that 67 per cent of mums think that spaghetti bolognese is Britain’s favourite messy meal?
One man who knows better than most what Britain’s journalists do want from a survey is Phil Riggins, senior managing director from KRC Research, which carries out independent surveys for one of the UK’s leading public relations firms, Webber Shandwick.
In a telephone poll of 40 UK journalists and editors last year, Riggins established that the most important factors when considering using a survey are sample size, newsworthiness and authenticity. He also discovered that 69 per cent of people surveyed believed that phone polls were the most reliable, with only 5 per cent favouring internet polls.
Unlike agenda-setting De Vere, Riggins believes successful surveying is all about second-guessing the news agenda.
"One of the things that we stress when we’re working with an account team is that you need to work out how to fall in line with the editorial agenda of the journalists. It might be a really interesting idea, but if it doesn’t match what they are writing about, they’re not going to go for it.
"We monitor what gets printed so we can have a good idea of what is the zeitgeist at the moment and how can we tap into that. We look at where we want to go and work out how we can get there. It’s tailored to how you can align the corporate or consumer brand with the editorial agenda of the target media."
Bearing in mind that Riggins’s own research also found that the UK media regarded any survey of less than 1,000 respondents untrustworthy, perhaps we should take what he says with a liberal pinch of salt.
RECENT RANDOM POLLS
91 per cent of Britons said fox hunting represented "England’s most cherished cultural treasure". Daily Telegraph
David Cameron is the 92nd most attractive man in the UK. New Woman
60 per cent of professional footballers want an Englishman to succeed Sven-Goran Eriksson. The Independent
60 per cent of secondary school teachers know of a pupil who has taken a knife into school. Daily Mirror
The Transit van is Britain’s least romantic vehicle.
24 per cent polled think Jack the Ripper is the worst Briton of the past 1,000 years. BBC History