Timely use for FT cuttings, in the cause of art and vanity

Financiers have been commissioning nude portraits of their wives made from collages of newspaper clippings telling the stories of their own financial conquests.

Story ingredients: newspaper cuttings, banking crisis, artist, £15,000, recycling — and vanity. This comes from an entertaining story in today’s Sunday Times about new uses for old copies of the Financial Times. Topically, one portrait’s subject is the wife of Iceland’s president. She declares:

I have yet to meet someone who does not want a naked picture of their loved ones with text about themselves.

There must be some out there, somewhere.

And finally:

David Yarrow, founder of Clareville Capital, a hedge fund, commissioned a naked portrait of himself to hang in his weekend cottage in Devon.

He said: “What good use of the newspapers. She put the FT cuttings about me in some very naughty parts. It makes a good present for people but maybe they will never want to read the FT again. I am glad to see the price of her work is going up. I might have to flog mine. I might need to.”

Is crowd-sourcing edging into mainstream journalism — or is it just an online survey?

How far did asking readers for their input help Jay Rayner with his Observer article on genetically modified foods, published last Sunday? He found it a mixed bag — and a lot more work, he says.

It involved digesting hundreds of emails and online comments, says Rayner, including 159 comments on the original request online — but:

In the end, although I didn’t set out to do it this way, almost every single research paper I consulted came via our call to arms, as did three of the four main interviewees (two from each side).

My impression is that this kind of crowd-sourcing has been edging more into mainstream journalism — but often in a different way from Rayner’s “exercise in open-source journalism” (as he calls it).

Take another current example: the BBC’s iPM asking for readers/listeners to flag up what element of their spending has been hit hardest by the ‘credit crunch’, which it’s plotting on a map. Similarly, the Times Online sought readers’ comments on its 2008 Budget Survey, plotting them on a Google mapAndy Dickinson helped out. This survey-style approach is automated, of course, and so can handle large numbers of responses — clearly essential when we’re talking about more than 22,000 responses, as with iPM.

There may be a trade-off. Go for as many responses as possible, with a narrow set of questions and possible responses (so it can be readily automated). A large response might make results more reliable and/or representative. But it’s still essentially a survey, even if it has the online equivalent of bells and whistles.

On the other hand, a Rayner-style invitation to contribute is more blog-like and open-ended — which means a human has to read and digest the responses. But a ‘click here’ survey wouldn’t get you research papers and interviewees.

In the end I suspect there’s a place for open-ended crowd-sourcing, surveys, and much in between. Including pointers that help to produce a scoop.

The Observer’s tangle with science story — now removed from website

The Observer seems to have pulled a front-page story from its website, after problems emerged with the article, which was published on 8 July 2007.
Observer front page 8 July 2007

The case raises some interesting questions not only about science reporting — but also about corrections and clarifications, and the importance of some journalistic essentials.

Ben Goldacre, who writes the Bad Science column in The Guardian, has analysed the article in detail in his column and on his blog and in the British Medical Journal.

He’s expressed his concerns forcefully (follow the links above to read his detailed analysis):

I am pretty jaded and sceptical, but this front page story has completely stunned and astonished me. The misrepresentations and errors went way beyond simply misunderstanding the science, and after digging right to the bottom of it all, knowing what I know now, I have never resorted to hyperbole before, but I can honestly say: this episode has changed the way I read newspapers.

The difficulties lie not only with the original story, Ben suggests — but also with the clarifications from The Observer’s Readers’ Editor, Stephen Pritchard, which appeared in the two following issues: on 15 July and 22 July 2007.

Ben Goldacre’s assessment of the situation:

Two failed “clarifications” later that clarify nothing, and I am even less impressed. Retract. Delete. Apologise.

One of the journalistic failings seems to have been that no-one from The Observer apparently contacted Dr Fiona Scott, even before publishing the first clarification. She then posted some comments online, which The Observer published as part of its second clarification — again without having spoken to her or exchanged emails, it appears. However, it took Ben Goldacre a quick Google search and a couple of hours to get an email reply, as he notes in this post.

The original Observer article used to be online here. The Google cache of the original story is here — or at least it when I wrote this post. But if the article was pulled for legal reasons, perhaps it won’t be on Google’s cache for much longer.

Will The Observer run a third clarification next Sunday?

Meanwhile, credit to its sister paper, The Guardian, at least, for publishing Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science column on the article.