OPINION1 April 2009

The responsible approach

There have been many infamous bunfights at the House of Commons. So it was an entirely fitting venue for a battle royale between research practitioners and their critics last month.

The Debating Society staged an event that addressed whether market research was more ‘manipulator’ than ‘messenger’. Ben Goldacre, author of the bestseller Bad Science, believed that market researchers were the root cause of all evil, mere PR funtionaries for their clients. Goldacre gives great platform. He’s funny, spiky and fearless. And as with all great orators, amid the great moments of clarity there were also dizzying flights of barminess.

It fell to Ipsos Mori’s Ben Page and ComRes’s Andrew Hawkins to defend research’s corner. They held firm throughout the debate and carried the crowd against the motion with some ease.

However, a dose of their defence was based around sticking the boot into the national press. Research findings are often perverted when journalists fillet out just enough detail to create a hysterical headline.

There were lots of murmurs of assent in the room at the attack on the honourable members of the press. This particular member of the press kept his head down.

Just when I thought that the gathered crowd would erect a Wicker Man and then place me in it, one voice pierced through the room with a very refreshing view.

Michael Brewer of Clerestorey cut through the clichéd salvoes against the press. He said: “I’m not sure that dodgy journalism is the issue here. I think that agencies are shirking their responsibilities to ensure that their data is used and communicated properly.

“Yes, there are examples of irresponsibility in the press, but when that happens who is challenging the use of skewed data? Agencies have a responsibility to see their work through and the leaders of the market research business need to take more of a lead in this.”

What role should agencies take in ensuring that the care and attention taken over their research is treated with such care and attention by the client? All too often the agency is forced to hand over the data or insight and just walk away.

If research really is to be regarded as a messenger rather than manipulator, research providers will have to take a stand against the sloppy reporting of findings and, where it exists, selective use of data.

It’s a high-risk game. You could make an enemy of the press or annoy the client. But, isn’t the impartiality and accuracy inherent in the profession well worth fighting for?