3.8m children don’t own a book, and other fairy stories…

Girl reading
Back in my staff reporter days, I used to have this really mean news editor.  This isn’t surprising to anyone who’s ever worked in a newsroom. ALL news editors are mean – it’s in the job description.

My news editor used to look at my carefully crafted stories and would read them out to me in a cynical voice.

"This will reduce costs by 60%? Where did you get that from?”

“Well, the guy in the press release said it when I interviewed him."

“And you just believed him?”

That was what my editor said about virtually all of my stories until I got a clue and realised that people can tell you ANYTHING. It doesn’t make it true. Especially if they're trying to sell you something.

As bloggers, we get sent press releases all the time, or corporate "bios" that include all sorts of claims. We're market leaders, we're the first, we're the biggest, we're the cheapest. Oh, really? 

I find myself increasingly frustrated reading blogs that trot out these "facts" without question when even the most basic research would reveal more fiction than fact. And it matters – when you repeat a claim, as a blogger, without checking it out, it's YOUR credibility on the line just as much as it is the PR agency or the brand. 

A great example is the story all over Twitter (and the media) today about “3.8m children don’t own a single book.” The National Literacy Trust, which published the report in question, talks about this fact, and how it's working with kids in disadvantaged areas to try and teach them vital literacy skills.

Wowzers. One in three kids don’t own a book. That's a REALLY shocking figure, isn't it? But hang on, does it sound true, to you? Of all the kids you know, how many don't own a book? Maybe one or two?  Perhaps none? Not a third, I bet. 

Being a cynical creature, I went to look at the website of the National Literacy Trust and downloaded the full report that the press release is based on. And I find some interesting facts in the appendix at the end of the report. 

  • The data is based on 18,000 children in just 100 schools, in areas that are slightly above average in terms of income. So not disadvantaged, exactly. We're looking at 6,000 kids who don't own a book. To go from there to 3.8m is quite an extrapolation. 
  • Moreover, all the kids taking the survey are aged 8-14. In fact, 90% of them are aged 11-14. An age when lots of kids do tend to read books quite a bit less for pleasure – some kids I know of this age are busy reading magazines and online content, rather than books.  
  • The kids taking the survey performed exactly in line with national standards in terms of their reading attainment – which is to say that 80% of them performed at or above the expected reading level for their age. So not reading doesn't seem to be doing them any harm. 

So what we have here is not REALLY a story that says a third of kids don't own a book, and their literacy skills are in crisis. It's a story that says a third of older children aren't owning books, although they have the literacy skills you'd expect of children of their age. 

So… not such a big story, after all, it seems. 

My point here isn't that literacy is bad, or we shouldn't do more to promote books to kids of ALL ages. I'm a big fan of the written word. And words in general, as it happens. 

It's just that if you are writing about stories that are being pushed out via press releases, it's important that you don't JUST BELIEVE THEM. Ask a few questions. Can they prove what they say? Does it sound credible to you? If a company claims A causes B, can they really prove it? Just because one thing (eating ice cream) tends to happen around the same time as something else (being eaten by a shark) doesn't mean one causes the other (sharks eat people because they've been eating ice cream).* 

What do you think? Does it matter if bloggers don't fact check? Should we be doing more to verify stories before writing about them – or do you rely on newspapers to do that? 


* Thanks to @LondonMUGirl for the analogy on Twitter, which I've nicked. 


Sally is a full-time blogger and founder of the Tots100, Trips100, Foodies100 and HIBS100 communities, along with the MAD Blog Awards. She spends a bit too much time on the Internet. She’s also a very happy Mum to Flea, the world’s coolest ten year old.

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  1. 5th December 2011 / 6:19 pm

    I am glad you posted this. I thought this statistic sounded like utter crap when I heard it today, and I’ve yet to hear anything that proves otherwise. Although maybe what the kids meant was – we don’t have books, we have the Kindle app on our iPhones instead. That sounds more plausible for teenagers.

  2. 5th December 2011 / 6:40 pm

    I really like your article. I have a big attitude towards the type of education that our children need, and the fact that it needs to be radically different from the traditional ones that we had. We don’t need our children to be able to remember the dates of reigns of kings or queens, or all the letters and order of the periodic table, because they will be carrying all of that factual information in their pockets, with virtually any fact accessible in a few clicks. They don’t need IT lessons timetabled, just as we didn’t have “using a pen lessons” it’s just a life skill that should be fully incorporated into all other lessons.
    What they need though are new skills. They need to be taught how to differentiate opinion for fact, and how to distinguished between informed opinion and debate as opposed to uninformed rants. They need to be able to identify marketing, bias and manipulated data, and to be able to ascertain the motive behind the story before they rely on it. These are much harder skills and not things easily taught in the class room, but these are the skills that are children are going to need if they are going to be able to make sensible informed decisions in the future. They need to be taught how to read data, analyse data and interpret data. They really don’t need to be taught that they need to remember data.

  3. 5th December 2011 / 6:56 pm

    Excellent point! You are right- a blogger should check facts, just a little bit, if they care about their credibility.
    However, I understand when someone will want to jump on a publicity bandwagon in order to get ratings up or because they have strong feelings about an issue- correct facts or not. Most blogger are not trained in investigative techniques or analytical skills, lots do it for the love of writting, self expression (which is even a different part of the brain activated). Blogs are personal accounts and as long as they stay that way & don’t try to reach beyond, it’s ok. I think there is an unwritten understanding that they provide this personal angle. One may build up credibility over time in certain fields through demostrated expertise, but that takes time &, in a way, creating a personal brand. This credibility can be quickly tarnished by jumping on a publicity bandwagon and getting the facts wrong. So it is in a blogger’s interest to check the facts if they venture into unknown territory.

  4. 5th December 2011 / 7:54 pm

    Fab post. So true about some bloggers just copying out press releases without questioning any content. I’m starting to really turn off blogs that do that as they’re not telling me anything that I wouldn’t get in an advert.

  5. Nicki Cawood
    5th December 2011 / 8:14 pm

    Brilliant post. I dismissed the statistics to be honest, surely someone would have written about it before 3.8m, I’d have thought 2.5m would have looked just as good.
    Out of curiosity, at which point (do you think) does releasing data in this way become less propaganda and lean more towards being fraudulent? It’s misrepresenting facts.

  6. TheBoyandMe
    5th December 2011 / 8:18 pm

    Well done, completely and utterly accurate. As a primary school teacher, whose natural habitat is in Year Six (this is of course relevant because of the ages discussed) I know only too well that they do read, their Literacy skills are not dire and that reports like this are damaging to the profession. (The next report will be to blame teachers for not fixing this ‘crisis’)

  7. 5th December 2011 / 8:21 pm

    Thought this didn’t sound right. Also if they work with schools in disadvantaged areas was their research done over a cross section of schools or just the ones they work with, skewing the results further.

  8. 5th December 2011 / 8:24 pm

    Thank you for writing this! I have seen so many statistics trotted out in an alarmist fashion, without anyone stopping to think about what they really mean. I’ve ranted about it myself in the past too. Another point I’d like to make is that it’s also important to see who is funding the research, and what do they want to get out of it. Because you can fundamentally find a statistic to back up any claim you want to make.
    Another thing that gets my goat is risk factors. For example, “if you drink red wine during pregnancy your baby is twice as likely to be born with two heads!” (75% of statistics are made up, by the way). But if the risk of your baby being born with two heads starts at 0.01%, then it’s just become 0.02% which is (a) still not very likely and (b) a small enough risk to be explained by standard statistical deviation.
    Not all bloggers are trained journalists, or mathematicians, and at the end of the day I’m not going to tell anyone what they should or should not put on their blog. I think every blogger can find an audience for what they have to say, but I personally would prefer to read something that someone has thought about than something that reads like it was copy/pasted off the press release.

  9. Diane
    5th December 2011 / 8:25 pm

    Exellent post. I do respect bloggers who check these things out, and I have to say, these days I’m as likely to see that kind of rechurned press release in a major news outlet or professional blog as I am on an amateur site, which really disturbs me. And I think there’s room for a really interesting post (perhaps from a teen) on what they actually do read, and what they enjoy about it.

  10. 5th December 2011 / 9:51 pm

    This is why i don’t call myself a blogger any more. I’m a writer. End of. Bloggers get a really bad press, and not always rightly so.

  11. 5th December 2011 / 9:56 pm

    I don’t see this as being about “blaming” anyone, bloggers or otherwise. I’m urging bloggers to question press releases, just as I’d urge shoddy journalists to do the same. For bloggers, perhaps, it’s more important as it’s your personal credibility you’re taking a risk with.

  12. 5th December 2011 / 9:57 pm

    I am quite proud of being a blogger – and a journalist. But that’s not to say I’m not going to talk about how we can do things better.

  13. 5th December 2011 / 9:57 pm

    Yes, there used to be a brilliant site about churnalism, calling out papers that just published press releases. Did you see the hoax story that ran in the Telegraph last week about cloud computing? Classic example, of a journalist not fact-checking something from a hoax website. Just lazy.

  14. 5th December 2011 / 9:59 pm

    You’re right that stats are easily misunderstood and misrepresented – there’s a school of thought that journalism school should cover statistics, and I think that would be useful for lots of people, myself included.
    But ultimately, I think if you’re going to make a point about something and use a press release to back it up, you SHOULD be confident it’s true, or present it as an opinion, not unvarnished fact.
    That’s probably judgemental. Sorry.

  15. 5th December 2011 / 10:00 pm

    The schools were actually slightly above average in terms of income, insofar as fewer children than average claimed free school meals.

  16. 5th December 2011 / 10:00 pm

    Well, quite – it’s just a matter of time. I’ve already read 3 or 4 pieces all about why aren’t we doing bedtime stories and citing this research – when most 11-14 year olds would not thank you for reading them a story in bed!

  17. 5th December 2011 / 10:01 pm

    I think it’s just being selective – as we used to say in the newsroom (jokingly) “never let the truth get in the way of a good story”.
    There’s nothing untrue in the release, and nothing untrue in what the papers and bloggers have subsequently reported – it’s just an extremely selective view.

  18. 5th December 2011 / 10:02 pm

    Well, what I’d do in a journalistic fashion is to differentiate between something that “is” and something that someone “claims” – one is something I say is true, one is something someone told me, and I’m just passing on – why can’t bloggers make THAT sort of distinction?

  19. 5th December 2011 / 10:03 pm

    Really interesting comment, thanks – I do suspect many of those teenagers are using iPads and smartphones and websites, rather than books. It’s just a new form of reading, maybe.

  20. 5th December 2011 / 10:03 pm

    Well quite – we should always be aware of vested interest.

  21. 5th December 2011 / 10:04 pm

    yes, I suspect lots of teens read rather a lot – just on Facebook and BBM and iPhones and Kindles. Not books.

  22. TheBoyandMe
    5th December 2011 / 10:59 pm

    Exactly! As long as they are reading. I tell parents in parents’ evenings that they should encourage them to read a variety of text-types: magazines, shopping lists, the Internet, etc. And now I suppose a Kindle. Does that count as a book? I’m guessing that there are some extremely well read children out there who own Kindles with thousands of books on them, but no ‘paper’ book!

  23. 5th December 2011 / 11:26 pm

    And then we could get into the philosophical discussion about “what is truth?”…
    And then the slightly more capitalist questions of “does truth sell newspapers?” or “does truth drive blog traffic?”.

  24. 5th December 2011 / 11:37 pm

    Wow, that is one very inaccurate article. How are they allowed to print stuff like that? Us it because it’s “backed up” by the small print?

  25. Nicki Cawood
    6th December 2011 / 7:23 am

    True, it is… very selective though.
    Like when I told people I was a size 8 and really it meant size 8 for each leg 🙂
    We do need to be very careful though when representing facts given to us all as gospel. Great post.

  26. Crispin
    6th December 2011 / 11:47 am

    80% of kids don’t own books:
    There are about 4.5million kids aged 8-14 in the UK, so according to the research 80% of them don’t own books. I can mis-represent data too! I wonder what Amazon or Waterstone’s would say.
    You can make up your own headlines using the table below.
    2,926,238 (Ages 0-4)
    1,838,668 (Ages 5-7)
    1,283,861 (Ages 8-9)
    3,229,047 (Ages 10-14)
    623,767 (Ages 15)
    1,231,266 (Ages 16-17)
    1,177,571 (Ages 18-19)…dived by two will give you 588,925, the approxamate number of 18 year olds.
    This information was taken in 2001 when England had a population of 49,138,831. As of 2007, the population has increased to 51,092,000. So, these numbers may be a little bit off, but they are still pretty close.
    There are about 11,721,722 children in England.

  27. 6th December 2011 / 12:06 pm

    What seems to me to be more of a concern is that the general public DON’T question ‘facts’ like this. So many people see a headline, and believe it, not even bothering to stop and think ‘does that sound as though it’s right!?’.
    That’s the worrying part, and I agree with the person above who commented that this is the sort of thing children should be taught in school : If they are going to be taught to have technology and the wealth of information which the internet provides, at their fingertips, they need to be taught how to rationally consider what they are reading, what sites are likely to be reputable sources etc.

  28. Cathy
    6th December 2011 / 12:23 pm

    On the same vein, I get really annoyed with the ’cause and effect’ stories you mention in your last paragraph. There was one in the Guardian recently about how breastfeeding children reduces the chances of anti-social behaviour in later life. Some study in Sweden, I think, had looked at a bunch of young adults, and found that slightly more anti-social behaviour (whatever that is) was carried out by the young adults who had not been breastfed. Ergo, breastfeeding helps ‘protect against’ antisocial behaviour. Or, if you prefer, bottle-feeding makes your child prone to antisocial behaviour.
    Wonder if it occurred to these ‘researchers’ that breastfeeding is very much a middle-class pursuit and those raised in middle class households are probably less likely to behave antiocially as they are more likely to be well educated, literate, have middle-class values, suffered no deprivation or other trigger for antisocial behaviour, blah blah blah.
    Apparently not though – it was all down to Mummy’s tits.

  29. 6th December 2011 / 1:25 pm

    Ah yes.
    I always like shops that say “the nation’s favourite….” REALLY? Says who?
    I absolutely LOATH stats used in that way. We spent a year pointlessly fighting them with home education v the state a couple of years ago. It was deeply unpleasant.
    I spend a lot of time discussing these things with my kids “someone says does not mean something is”. But actually, journalists themselves have a lot to answer for these days. So many stories, like the home ed one for example, are just regurgitated press releases. We nearly got all our freedoms revoked because the NSPCC said “home educated children are at risk of abuse” and on the same day admitted they had absolutely no evidence for that claim at all. Wasn’t that bit that ran and ran in the headlines though, was it?

  30. 6th December 2011 / 4:19 pm

    I agree and think you’ve made a vital point that bloggers/journos/tweeters (ie everyone-apart from my Dad) needs to fact check before regurgitating press releases etc. Well done for raising this.

  31. 6th December 2011 / 6:28 pm

    Although eating ice cream may make you quite delicious to sharks 😉
    Having seen what a communications team will do to statistics if you let them, I’m careful to take anything like this with a mountain of salt. ‘Who did you actually ask?’ is always the first question.

  32. 6th December 2011 / 9:00 pm

    Ah statistics. My fave of the moment is the one in this week’s Week (taken from the Times which says something like “1 in 5 men and 1 in 8 women (I’m making the numbers up because I’m too lazy to go and find it, but that’s probably what the journalist did too so hey) does not expect, on their wedding day, to be faithful”.
    You what? Excuse me but who’s going round accosting brides and saying “Hey love, nice frock? But do you really think you’re only going to sleep with him for the whole of the rest of your life? And can I quote you on that?”.
    I think not – and if they’re not actually asking them on their wedding days then the stat is, quite frankly, nonsense.
    I’m with several of your other commenters though – while I agree that in an ideal world we should all check everything, most bloggers are not professional writers, and may not have either the time or the sources to do so. Professional journalists, on the other hand, have no excuse. The famous Wikipedia loop is not a reliable source…
    oh and to Geekmummy I’m sure it’s 82% of statistics that are made up isn’t it?!

  33. MmeLindor
    7th December 2011 / 12:19 pm

    Very good post.
    I would have raised an eyebrow at that figure, because it just sounds odd.
    Some people don’t know how many people live in UK, I think. So when you say, “12m Brits said that they love Marmite”, they don’t know if that is a high or a low percentage so cannot put it into contex.
    I don’t think it is a bad thing to call attention to this, as some people who start blogging may not be aware of how some PR agencys skew data. We are not professional journalists, and we too have to learn to look behind the headlines.

  34. Fiona (@nlpmum)
    7th December 2011 / 1:38 pm

    Statistics can be used to tell whatever tale you want and it’s a real shame these stats are so misrepresentative of a possibly more interesting story about child poverty and literacy in this country. There are plenty of kids at my kids’ school who I suspect don’t own a book, two kids in my lo’s class are moved from one set of foster parents to another and one kid in the school is watching porn (aged 9); I had no idea what poverty was until we lived here. The trouble is the personal heart rending stories tell the story of only one child and the stats usually tell a distorted story based on certain samples (which often are not qualified in the article). If the stats were used openly and honestly we might be more trusting of them. Great that you’ve highlighted the issue and YES bloggers should definitely be checking their facts…. but then journalists should be spelling out the story better too.

  35. 8th December 2011 / 8:50 pm

    Thannks for a great reminder to all of us Sally. Personally I never trust the press especially if it is something that sounds questionable. I remember reading an article making a few years ago making claims that I was sure would be skewed if I found the original source. In this case I couldn’t find a link to the full report anywhere which was very frustrating.
    I sometimes wonder when stories talk about kids not having books. My kids have far too many books to fit into their bookcases and occasionally I take a boxfull to the charity shop. I would love to find a scheme similar to bookstart where I could donate my books to disadvantaged kids – anyone know of any?

  36. 9th December 2011 / 4:09 am

    Great piece of investigative journalism, Sally.
    That age is exactly the time when kids are spending their precious money on stuff other than books, and parents are beginning to lose touch with what their children are reading, and don’t want to waste money on buying a book that won’t be read. So it makes sense that fewer of them own books.
    I like the example of the story that proves that tall children are more intelligent than short ones. The research is carried out in several primary schools. There is significant evidence that the taller the children are, the more advanced they are in maths, reading, and writing. This is ground-breaking… Oh, and it’s interesting to note that the taller ones tend to be older too… In children aged 5 – 11, it seems that ability might be linked to age as well as height…

  37. 9th December 2011 / 5:32 pm

    I posted about this as I didn’t believe the statistics. I did my post on all the different ways people have access to books. I didn’t get a pr through I watched it on the news before going to work. It makes it look like a shocking statistic.

  38. 10th December 2011 / 8:59 pm

    I have been mulling over this for the last couple of days, having written my own post on how shocked I was at the statistic, and feel compelled to express my view.
    Polls are based on mathematical statistics. As with any type of statistic, polls based on samples of populations are subject to sampling error expressed as margin of error.
    1000-2000 is the average number of samples for any poll (that is for the UK and the US).
    A poll with a random sample of 1,000 people has margin of sampling error of 3% for the estimated percentage of the whole population. The margin of error can be reduced by using a larger sample. To reduce the margin of error to 1% would need a sample of around 10,000 people.
    This study measured 18,141 pupils, an immense number in comparison to the average poll and leaves only a margin of error of much less than 1%
    I feel that everyone commenting here has valid points, and it is important to look at the facts, but in this example, even if the margin for error was 50% I would still be deeply shocked at this number.
    I do not buy in to the Kindle/iPad/online reading theory. Many, many children in the UK are from deprived families, some would not even know what a Kindle is and could only dream of owning an iPad. I accept that the children in this study were of slightly above average income and are therefore more likely to own technological equipment, however there were 25 questions asked in the study, many of which were towards children’s attitudes towards books.
    The answers including; I prefer TV, I would be embarrassed if my friends saw me reading, reading is for girls, I only read when I have to, correlated directly to lower reading attainment.
    Yes the National Literacy Trust have an agenda, as with most polls. In light of these findings they are asking the public to give the “Gift of Reading this Christmas by making a donation which could give a disadvantaged child a book of their own for the first time”.
    Is that such a bad agenda?
    And at the end of the day, we as writers/bloggers, are surely also readers. In which case why are we undermining this shocking statistic which has the “vested interest” of encouraging our children to read more?
    Is that so terrible? I, for one, fully endorse it.

  39. 11th December 2011 / 10:24 pm

    That is a very sobering point. I too jumped on the bandwagon on Facebook, although I didn’t blog about it. I don’t suppose it really matters if write a post that is factually under-researched, however if you want to come across as believable and if you are looking at blogging as a launchpad for a career then it is pretty vital to prove integrity. Thanks for the reality check.