Newspaper snark

Getting your PhD into the national press is pretty impressive. But getting two articles devoted to it (one on the front page) before you even submit, must mean you’re on to something. Alternatively, perhaps you have a journalist friend who doesn’t mind writing the same article twice.

Today’s Observer devotes much of its front page to a report by Anushka Asthana, beginning:

Damning new evidence that faith schools are siphoning off middle-class pupils can be revealed today, as research shows they are failing to take children from the poorest backgrounds nationwide.

This ‘new evidence’ is, of course, a complete revolution compared to the last time Asthana wrote this article, back in September. That one only made page 2:

Faith schools are ‘cherry picking’ too many children from affluent families and contributing to racial and religious segregation, according to the most extensive research of its kind…

[OK, there are some differences. For a start first article only covers London, the second is nationwide. But the articles don’t take much trouble to explain what’s actually new. Besides, how can I concentrate on the technicalities while distracted by visions of the Heath Robinson contraption which will ‘cherry-pick’ the affluent, and ‘siphon off’ the merely middle-class?]

What about the research papers on which the articles are based? Neither has been published or peer-reviewed. Neither is the work of a notably eminent scholar. Neither has sent shock-waves through the social science community. And – they’re both the work the same PhD student, Rebecca Allen, who is currently finishing her PhD at the University of London’s Institute of Education. The first was an conference paper (the online version is marked ‘draft paper – please do not cite’; blasting it at 450,000 Observer readers clearly doesn’t count as citing). The second I can only guess is Allen’s PhD thesis.

So, how did Anushka Asthana spot this academic rising star, assess her work, and decide that it was a matter of national importance? I’d like to think she spends her days poring over conference proceedings and hustling preprints out of postdocs. But I’ll go with circumstantial evidence – and the way everything in the British media works, and put it down to Oxbridge cliqueyness. In this case, Anushka Asthana (the journalist) and Rebecca Allen (the PhD student) were contemporaries at Cambridge, on the same Economics course in 1999. Slanderous as the accusation may be, I think I’ll chalk this one up to the old girl’s network.

[FWIW, I do think that class segregation of schools is a Bad Thing, and probably should make the news. I’d prefer that news reports are based on academic research rather than think-tank lobbying. But I don’t trust ‘evidence’ that isn’t publicly available, I don’t trust journalists who sensationalize everything and put nothing in context, and I wish journalism – and politics – didn’t always come down to looking after your friends]

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