Unsupported media generalisations


Once, years ago, when Boris Yeltsin was in power in Russia, we heard a BBC reporter say the following about Russian young people:

"The young no longer have any faith in Yeltsin or his generation..."

If that seems innocuous to you, imagine a reporter stating the following:

"The young no longer have any faith in Bill Clinton or his generation..."

Even with evidence of widespread disenchantment with Clinton, it was unlikely you'd hear the latter statement from a UK/US reporter. So why is it acceptable in the former (Yeltsin) case? The statement implies that "the young" of a country form a homogeneous mass with only one opinion. The reporter didn't quote any opinion polls to support/qualify his generalisation. And what about "Yeltsin's generation"? Presumably they too form a homogeneous single-opinion mass? We're talking here about millions of individual lives/opinions.

How does one "generation" have "faith" in another? What exactly does that mean? How would you measure it?

It's possible, of course, that a majority of people in a given age-range express a certain opinion – as measured by answers to survey questions, etc. But in that case, reporters should quote the survey. In cases (such as the above) when no research is quoted, we're most likely hearing just one person's opinion – the reporter's.

Such unsupported generalisations seem common in mainstream media coverage. A good example is the phrase used by a BBC presenter to describe the events following the 2003 "fall of Baghdad":

"Baghdad's joy at being liberated" (Peter Sissons, BBC News, 9/4/03)

Did Sissons poll a sample of the 5 million population of Baghdad? No – his statement (which masquerades as "news") seems based on footage of a few hundred apparently excited people witnessing the fall of Saddam Hussein's statue (which – according to some – was a stage-managed event, and not representative of the people of Baghdad).

For more on generalisations/abstractions see our page: How to stupidise people.