Observations Medicine and the Media

Barnardo’s misleading survey: publicity at what cost?

BMJ 2011; 343 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.d7802 (Published 30 November 2011) Cite this as: BMJ 2011;343:d7802
  1. Margaret McCartney, general practitioner, Glasgow
  1. margaret{at}margaretmccartney.com

A survey by the charity purporting to show anti-child sentiment in the UK got a great deal of publicity. However, Margaret McCartney says that the exercise was a lesson in how to ask leading questions

“Half ‘think youngsters are violent,’” began the Press Association wire, continuing, “Almost half of Britons think young people are angry, violent and abusive . . . The survey of more than 2000 people found half thought children were beginning to behave like animals and more than two in five thought children were ‘becoming feral.’

“‘What hope is there for childhood in the UK today if this is how adults think?’ Ms Carrie said” (www.google.com/hostednews/ukpress/article/ALeqM5i2A3TetJzjhFoveBwG_JGw1-mWYg?docId=N0413871320230521767A).

Anne Marie Carrie is chief executive of Barnardo’s, the children’s charity that had commissioned the survey into attitudes held by adults towards children in the United Kingdom. The story received broad coverage. The BBC reported, “The survey revealed that: 49% agreed children are beginning to behave like animals; almost 47% thought youngsters were angry, violent and abusive; one in four said those who behaved badly were beyond help by the age of 10. Whilst 36% thought children who get into trouble need help, 38% disagreed.” Barnardo’s volunteer project worker Natasha Cripps, who commissioned the research, said that the word “feral” indicated a complete desertion of young people. She told BBC Radio 5 Live, “To call them feral means, ‘Right, that’s it, I’ve given up,’ and I don’t think you can ever give up on children” (www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-15568442).

Barnardo’s says that its “vision today is that the lives of all children and young people should be free from poverty, abuse and discrimination” (www.barnardos.org.uk/what_we_do/who_we_are/history.htm). But adults’ fear of or negative attitudes towards children could have a substantial effect on their wellbeing and ability to thrive in larger society. Evoking such a rejection, the Times led with “British adults turn their backs on children” (www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/news/uk/article3214709.ece). “Young written off as beyond help,” said the Daily Express (www.express.co.uk/posts/view/281360/Young-written-off-as-beyond-help). Barnardo’s own press release began, “Scandal of Britons who have given up on children. Many people are at risk of giving up on children altogether, a shocking new poll commissioned by Barnardo’s has found. It shows that nearly half the UK population (49%) agree that children today are beginning to behave like animals.”

But did the Barnardo’s survey fairly reach these conclusions? The survey’s first question was, “Below are a number of comments that have been made about young people in the UK. Could you tell us how much you agree or disagree with each of the statements?” The three statements were: “Children in this country are becoming feral,” “British children are beginning to behave like animals,” and “The trouble with youngsters is that they’re angry, violent and abusive.” No neutral or positive statement was given. The two other questions asked were, “When you think about children who behave in an inappropriate/disruptive/badly or anti-social way, at what age do you think it is too late to help change them for the better?” and, “How much do you agree or disagree with the following statement? ‘Children who get into trouble are often misunderstood and in need of professional help.’” No questions asked about any positive experiences of knowing or relating to children. No questions asked about the respondents’ family or children that they personally knew. Instead the questions used generalisations about children. The remainder of the survey asked the respondent for demographic and social information.

The style of the statements is a lesson in how to ask leading questions. Their bias makes it difficult to rely on the answers as a serious judgment of societal attitudes towards children. The follow-up questions are likely to have been prejudged by the language initially used, and it could be argued that the questions themselves, containing words such as “feral” and “animal,” were created to ensure maximum coverage in the press rather than balanced research. In this Barnardo’s succeeded, and it is notable that the survey was used to launch a television fundraising campaign.

The vogue for charities to use surveys to highlight a perceived need for their work is fraught with difficulties. Surveys cost money to commission and analyse. This may be a calculated cost to a charity, in that the publicity surrounding the results generate, through donations, an overall financial gain. However, it also means that the goal may be more “shocking,” and hence more publicity friendly, results. Is it right for charities to use leading questions, generating results that are used to pull people into donating to them? If a drug company was using the same techniques we would rightly pull apart their reasoning and claims.

Barnardo’s took a contract earlier this year with the Home Office to provide care to children who are denied asylum and forced to leave the UK in “pre-departure accommodation” (www.homeoffice.gov.uk/media-centre/news/barnados-help). It also has a policy and research unit where it supports “evidence based practice and policy change. The role of the Policy staff is to effect change in external policy, practice and public opinion for the benefit of children, young people and their families. To position Barnardo’s as the leading children’s charity campaigning on the basis of what works and what matters for today’s families throughout the UK” (www.barnardos.org.uk/get_involved/jobs/jobs_areas/jobs_areas_pru.htm).

Barnardo’s seeks a position of leadership and influence. However, it has sought to achieve this by using a survey that was neither reliable nor fair. Its supporters, as well as the adults they blame and the children they wish to help, deserve better.


Cite this as: BMJ 2011;343:d7802