A plague of bogus trendspotting.

Media criticism.
Aug. 14 2003 5:58 PM

A Plague of Bogus Trendspotting …

… in USA Today, the Las Vegas Review-Journal, and the Wall Street Journal.

Illustration by Nina Frenkel

For the second time this week, USA Today reports on Page One the existence of a growing trend for which it provides no evidence. On Monday, this column shouted horsefeathers to the newspaper's discovery of the growing trend of subteens doing their own back-to-school shopping. The USA Today piece, a random assemblage of suggestive anecdotes, proved no such trend.

Today, USA Today trend-mongers strike again with a Page One subhead (only in the print edition) that claims a "growing number of obese teens" are getting gastric bypass surgery. (Here's the story, minus the subhead, on the Web: "For Raechel, 'it's horrible to be heavy.' ") While teens could be getting bypasses in greater numbers, reporter Nanci Hellmich's story makes no such assertion. In fact, Hellmich notes that no relevant numbers about teen bypasses exist:

More than 100,000 morbidly obese adults will have weight-loss surgeries this year, according to the American Society for Bariatric Surgery. There are no hard numbers on how many gastric bypass operations are performed on teenagers, but surgeons report getting more inquiries from children's families and doctors. [Emphasis added.]

The fact that surgeons might have heard "more inquiries from children's families and doctors" about bypass surgery doesn't automatically translate into a growing number of teen bypass operations. The unfortunate thing about USA Today's trend-mongering is that it's completely unnecessary to sell the story. Reporter Hellmich does an excellent job charting the surgery, recovery, and progress of 16-year-old, 323-pound Raechel Arnold.

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Because reporters rarely write their own headlines and subheads, and all the trend-mongering takes place in the subhead of Hellmich's piece, we excuse her from any misconduct. But her editors still stand accused.

A frisky "Press Box" reader alerted me to another bit of bogus trendspotting he found in "Tried-and-True: The Comfort Zone," published in yesterday's Las Vegas Review-Journal. The increase in "comfort food" entrees in Las Vegas restaurant menus is related to 9/11, sources tell Review-Journal reporter Sonya Padgett, and she doesn't challenge their balderdash. Padgett writes:

The trend started after the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, [restaurant co-owner Elizabeth] Blau says, when people turned to the familiar to soothe them during such a stressful time.

People hunkered down at home, says David Robbins, executive chef at Spago, and when they ate out, it was in neighborhood restaurants that served the foods they craved.

It's possible that gourmet restaurants picked up the comfort food trend as a way to entice customers to come back by offering them moderately priced, familiar items, adds Scott McCarter, executive chef at 3950.

As any casual diner can tell you, the comfort food trend began more than a decade ago, and it can't really be having much of a resurgence seeing as it never went away. The idea that 9/11 caused a comfort food uptick has other proponents in the press, though. On April 3, 2003, the Wall Street Journal linked a comfort food trend to the war on terrorism in "America's Wartime Diet." The article also insisted that the Iraq invasion had piqued the American appetite for high-calorie food! Reporter Katy McLaughlin writes:

In one of the more telling indicators of the current mood, the war in Iraq is changing not just the way people travel or watch TV, but also what they eat. Restaurants and chefs around the country are reporting unusually high demand for high-calorie foods, from hamburgers and macaroni and cheese to prepared foods that are easier to take home and eat in front of the news.

McLaughlin's story, which bloats with soft data and useless anecdotes, refuses to concede that in our fat-ass nation, we've never needed a national security crisis as an excuse to supersize our orders or demolish that third cupcake with our coffee. To blame a craving for comfort food on 9/11 or gorging on the Iraq war is just silly. (See the St. Paul Pioneer Press Web site for a reprint of the Journal story.)

What possesses journalists to dress up defensible stories in trendspotting regalia? Doing a bit of trendspotting himself in the April 1998 GQ, Daniel Radosh blamed the tendency of newsmagazines and newspapers to inflate stories into trends on hard-news competition from the Internet and 24-hour news channels. He writes:

Having largely ceded the task of breaking stories, print publications have concentrated on their strengths, which include the marginally longer attention span necessary to track trends. The flip side of this is that with so many media outlets dipping into the same nonbottomless well, news can dry up before everyone has gotten his share. The result is increased reliance on concept stories that don't require solid material like sources and new developments.

While I'm not sure that the Internet and 24-hour news stoke the trend-mongers, I agree with Radosh that the subjects of the most "intensive" trend stories relate to our primal anxieties about sex, money, religion, family, and technology. (To Radosh's list I'd add health and safety.) Trend stories find favor among readers because they allow them to turn their "anxieties into narratives, complete with deeper meanings, and thereby hope to conquer or at least soothe them."

If Radosh is right and the demand for bogus trendspotting creates the supply, I should stop blaming the media and start blaming readers.

******

Thanks to the anonymous reader who tipped me off to the food trend piece. Spotted a trend story that needs debunking? Send e-mail to pressbox@hotmail.com. Your e-mail comments may appear in Slate unless you request otherwise.

Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.

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