Bogus trendspotting at USA Today.

Media criticism.
Aug. 11 2003 6:33 PM

Bloggy Monday

Bogus trendspotting … did the press snooze while JFK boinked? … and more bogus trendspotting.

Trendspotting

Whenever I read the words "emerging trend" in a news story, I reach for my revolver. Most trendspotting articles—especially those appearing in newsless August—are bunk. The example on Page One of this morning's USA Today, "More Parents Are Leaving School Shopping to the Kids" shrieks bunk so loudly that I had to empty all six chambers to silence it. True to the trendspotters' formula, the piece's author, Bruce Horovitz, fields a few statistics, tosses out a few convenient anecdotes, and notes a potential countertrend before arriving at his dubious conclusions.

All the evidence Horovitz cites is easily invalidated. Let's go to the story.

Horovitz: "More than one in four parents say their 6- to 12-year-olds will spend at least some of their own money on back-to-school shopping, reports the National Retail Federation. The average amount from each kid: $32.63."

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Rebuttal: For something to qualify as a trend, it must be either new or growing—or both. The fact that kids might be spending some of their own money doesn't indicate that they're shopping alone or doing so in new numbers.

Horovitz: "Pacific Sunwear says 65% of its purchases are cash, a strong indication that a good chunk of the business is from kids shopping without credit-card-carrying parents."

Rebuttal: Why should we believe cash purchases are a "strong indication" that kids made the purchase? Can't parents pay cash, too? Is 65 percent in cash purchases more or less cash than August 2002 or August 2001 or August 2000?

Horovitz: "Gap and Gap Kids stores are seeing waves of preteen and early-teen shoppers—typically girls in groups of two to four—without parents, says Lynda Campbell, southern zone vice president."

Rebuttal: More or less waves? Or the same? And notice that the Gap VP doesn't say whether the kids are doing the actual purchasing. Shopping without buying is an age-old subteen hobby.

Horovitz: "Another sign of kids shopping without parents: the growth of the prepaid credit card industry."

Rebuttal: Oh, be serious! Without corroborating survey or industry data, how can one connect the growth of the prepaid credit card industry to the "trend" of more 8- to 12-year-olds shopping on their own?

Without a doubt, some 12-year-old kids are shopping without their parents. Decades ago, for example, I shopped solo as a subteenager. For all anybody knows, Horovitz could be right about his trend, but this lazy piece never makes the case.

JFK's Not-so-Secret Boinking

Retired Associate Press reporter Walter Mears, a Pulitzer Prize winner whose memoirs come out in October, tells U.S. News & World Reportthe press didn't cover up President John Kennedy's sexual indiscretions because it didn't know about them.

"Even if they can't prove it, reporters trade gossip," Mears tells U.S. News. "Even at last call in the bar, I didn't hear any. … [H]is affairs were secret because he saw to it."

Mears should have frequented other journalistic bars or at least had a few drinks with former CBS News reporter Marvin Kalb and New York Times reporter R.W. Apple Jr. On Page Four of One Scandalous Story, his critique of the Monicagate coverage, Kalb writes about an incident in September 1963 in which he stumbled upon the Secret Service escorting "a woman with stunningly attractive legs" up a private elevator in New York's Carlyle Hotel—where President Kennedy was staying. The panicked Secret Service knocked Kalb flat on the floor to prevent him from getting a good view of the woman.

Kalb didn't file a report about the knockdown or the woman. "It was my judgment at the time that such an incident was simply not 'news,' " Kalb writes. He then relates a similar story by the Times' Apple, who as a young reporter claims to have seen a beautiful woman escorted into Kennedy's Carlyle suite in 1963. Apple returned to the Times newsroom and told assignment editor Sheldon Binn what he'd seen. "Apple," Binn allegedly said, "you're supposed to report on political and diplomatic policies, not girlfriends. No story."

That the press shielded Kennedy cannot be denied. According to Scotty, John F. Stacks' biography of James B. Reston, Reston used his power as the New York Times Washington bureau chief to spike the inquiry of one of his reporters who was investigating rumors that JFK had married before taking Jacqueline Bouvier as his wife. "I will not have the New York Times muckraking the president of the United States!" he hollered.

And those are just the first three JFK stories that come to mind. …

Nielsen Schmielsen

An exhausted nation is turning away from TV news, asserts New York Times TV reporter Jim Rutenberg today in "Suffering News Burnout? The Rest of America Is, Too." Rutenberg bases his conclusion on numbers provided by Nielsen Media Research. According to Nielsen, the number of people watching the three evening network newscasts each night, on average, in June and July was 24.1 million. Over the same period in 2002, 25.2 million tuned into the broadcasts, and in 2001, 24.3 million did so.

How big a deal is the loss of 1.1 million viewers from 2002? Or the relatively small decline of viewers—200,000—between 2001 and 2003?

"It's not a significant shift" in viewers, says Anne Elliot, vice president of marketing and communications at Nielsen. Nielsen doesn't count viewers; it estimates them based on the 5,100 People Meters attached to TV sets that measure the TV consumption of the 14,000 to 15,000 people in those households. As with any scientific sample, there is a margin of error built into Nielsen's estimates. Different Nielsen estimates have different margins of error, Elliot says, and while she couldn't cite the margin of error in this particular example, she cautioned against extrapolating too much from the raw numbers.

Rutenberg undermines his own news burnout thesis by noting that the summer of 2002 might have been an outlier news year because of several very telegenic stories: the Elizabeth Smart disappearance; the rescue of the Pennsylvania coal miners; and the Los Angles International Airport murders.

In other words, this summer's trend is that there is no trend.

******

Spotted a bogus trend in the news? Send e-mail to pressbox@hotmail.com.

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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