ANDREW MARR: How to read a newspaper

5 March 2007

Few memoirs in recent times have been as heart-warmingly self-effacing as Andrew Marr‘s My Trade. Tongue firmly wrapped in cheek, the BBC’s former political editor, who edited The Independent, London, for a while, provides a witty insider’s account of the journalist’s trade.

Here, in these edited excerpts, Marr tells us how to separate the wheat from the chaff while reading a newspaper.
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1) Know what you’re buying: Reporting is now so contaminated by bias and campaigning, and general mischief, that no reader can hope to get a picture of what is happening without first knowing who owns the paper, and who it is being published for.

2) Follow the names: If you find a reporter who seems to know the score, particularly in an area you know about, cherish him or her.

3) Register bias: Even when you read the same paper every day, be aware that reporters are now less embarrassed to let the bias show.

4) Read the second paragraph; and look for quote marks: Surprisingly often, the key fact is not in the first paragraph, which is general and designed to grab attention. Look for the hard fact in the next paragraph. If it seems soft and contentless, there is probably very little in the story.

5) If the headline asks a question, try answering ‘no’: Is This the True Face of Britain’s Young? (Sensible reader: No.) Have we Found the Cure for AIDS? (No; or you wouldn’t have put the question mark in.) A headline with a question mark at the end means, in the vast majority of cases, that the story is tendentious and oversold. It is often a scare story, or an attempt to elevate some run-of-the-mill piece into a national controversy and, preferably, a national panic.

6) And watch out for quotation marks in headlines, too: If you read ‘Marr “stole” book idea’ then the story says nothing of the kind. If quotation marks are signs of real reporting in the body of a story, in the headline they are often a sign of failed reporting.

7) Read small stories: Just because something is reported in a single paragraph does not mean it is insignificant.

8) Suspect ‘research’: Hundreds of dodgy academic departments put out bogus or trivial pieces of research designed to impress busy newspaper people and win themselves some cheap publicity which can in turn be used in their next funding applications. If something is a survey, see if the paper reports how many people were surveyed, where and when.

9) Check the calendar: Not simply for April’s Fool, but for the predictable round of hardy annuals that bulk up thin news lists. Anniversaries; stories about wettest/driest/longest/warmest spring/summer/autumn…

10) Suspect financial superlatives: Even if the underlying rate of inflation is modest, then in the ordinary way of things, prices for many limited good are going to be the highest ever. What is interesting is how these increases relate to inflation and therefore to other prices and to each other.

11) Remember that news is cruel: Reading the awful things that people apparently say about each other, or newspapers say about them, can be depressing. Is life really so writhing with distaste, failure and loathing? No.

12) Finally, believe nothing you read about newspaper sales—nothing: Work it out for yourself.

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My Trade, published by Pan books, 2004

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