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Statistics and spin in the news business

I keep on coming across more stories and blog posts about the Newspaper Association of America’s Fall 2006 Newspaper Audience Database. It shows that visitors to US newspaper web sites in the first half of the year were up by a quarter on the same period last year.

I looked at the report and decided not to write about it for two reasons. First, while there are comparative figures for the web there are no such camparisons for print readership. Second, the language of the commentary is that of a promotional brochure rather than that of a survey report. Here is an example:

Are newspapers in a downward spiral? Don’t believe everything you read. While newspaper circulation has gradually eroded, newspaper readership continues to be strong and its total audience has expanded with the introduction of a variety of print and digital products. Newspapers—in print and online—are the number one local media brand.

I tend to agree with that but am suspicious of anyone who uses that sort of subjective language about a research report and provides comparative data for one medium but not the other.

Could it be that many of the reports are based purely on the press release?

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