Thanks to traditional and social media, an error in one document can echo outwards.

This article looks at how the erroneous claim that “4 in 10 dads will not see their children on Fathers’ Day” spread, and its corrections.

‘4 in 10 Fathers’

ComRes interviewed 2,082 British adults and 1,015 British fathers via an internet panel, between 29th May and 9th June 2019. The survey was commissioned by the campaign group Fathers4Justice, focusing on experiences and attitudes relating to fatherhood.

In the Fathers4Justice press release, the first sentence contains a misrepresentation:

The question was:

37% of the sample responded that they — or someone they know — had experienced “Not seeing my child(ren) on Father’s Day”. The survey estimated 21% of fathers had experienced not seeing their children.

About 1 in 5 fathers had not seen their children on some past Father’s Day. (Source: ComRes/Fathers4Justice)

Consequently, there are three errors seen in headlines and articles:

  • ‘4 in 10’: The 37% figure includes fathers who knew other fathers who had experienced that event — much higher than the 21% estimated to have experienced it directly themselves;
  • Experience, not expectation: The question was about experience of past Fathers’ Days: no claim can be made about the percentage of fathers who would not be seeing their children this Fathers’ Day;
  • Reason: There is no subsequent question to ascertain the reason for these misses, so it cannot be asserted that these misses were due to “separation or family breakdown”.

The Echoes

In an echo of the incorrect press release, this ‘4 in 10 fathers’ claim was repeated in the Telegraph, the Mail Online, the Mirror, and a Sunday Express editorial. Anthony Wells of YouGov drew attention to the matter on Twitter. The fact-checking organisation Full Fact highlighted these four outlets as repeating the erroneous claim.

I contacted each of the four organisations directly. The Telegraph and the Mail Online were very swift in their responses. The Mirror and Sunday Express took longer, and meant I contacted the Independent Press Standards Organisation.

Knowing someone who has experienced something is different from experiencing it yourself. (Graph: R Pubs)

I am grateful for all of the corrections undertaken, and for IPSO handling my complaints.

This is the online correction from the Sunday Express. (Source: Sunday Express)

Also, I contacted ComRes. Market Research Society companies are required — by their Code of Conduct — to:

In my correspondence, I was assured that ComRes had sought to guide their client away from that headline, as it did not accurately portray their survey estimates. Unfortunately, Fathers4Justice proceeded against their recommendations.

It should be noted that the Fathers4Justice website contains multiple misrepresentations of official statistics. For instance, the ONS Families and Households 2012 report did not find that ‘1 in 3 children live without their father’. The proportion of dependent children living in lone parent families was estimated to be 23.8% in 2012.

For survey data, journalists should ask for the underlying data tables — which British Polling Council members are required by transparency rules to publish. Survey research companies should be wary of partisan campaign groups, and how their research is used by clients.

We should stand up for accuracy in statistics.

Note: the code for the article’s graph in ggplot2 is available on R Pubs.

This blog looks at the use of statistics in Britain and beyond. It is written by RSS Statistical Ambassador and Chartered Statistician @anthonybmasters.

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