Newsweek's bogus trendspotting.

Media criticism.
Aug. 12 2003 6:37 PM

Newsweek's Bogus Trendspotting

Is there really an increase in teen prostitution?

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty

This week, Newsweek claims to have uncovered a rise in teen prostitution in a big feature story, "This Could Be Your Kid." In a classic bit of newsmagazine braggadocio, the editors bill the piece as both "exclusive" and an "investigation." Yowza!

The story starts with the sort of powerful anecdote you find in most bogus trend stories: "Cute, blond and chatty" 17-year-old Stacey "lives with her parents in an upscale neighborhood, gets good grades in high school and plans to try out for the tennis team." One day she let a stranger buy her clothes at Minnesota's Mall of America. Then she started stripping for men she met at the mall in exchange for money, with which she bought clothes. Pretty soon she was advertising her skills on a personals service "offering 'wealthy, generous' men 'an evening of fun' for $400."

"Potentially good sex is a small price to pay for the freedom to spend money on what I want," Stacey tells Newsweek. "The easiest way, she discovered, was to offer her body in trade," writes Newsweek reporter Suzanne Smalley.

But after her shocking lede, Smalley offers this wobbly nut-graf assertion:

Over the last year, local and federal law-enforcement officials say they have noted a marked increase in teen prostitution in cities across the country. Solid numbers are difficult to come by—a government-sponsored study puts the figure in the hundreds of thousands—but law-enforcement agencies and advocacy groups that work with teen prostitutes say they are increasingly alarmed by the trend lines: the kids are getting younger; according to the FBI, the average age of a new recruit is just 13; some are as young as 9. The girls—many fewer are boys, most experts believe—are subjected to more violence from pimps.

This paragraph, the fulcrum upon which the remainder of the article rests, doesn't convince. If law-enforcement officials say there is "a marked increase in teen prostitution," but "solid numbers are difficult to come by," what exactly are we to make of the "hundreds of thousands" figure that follows? Is Smalley saying that there are hundreds of thousands of teen prostitutes? Or that there are "hundreds of thousands" more teen prostitutes than there once were? If that's the case, how reliable is a study that advances such a vague number? Over what period was this "government-sponsored" population study of teen prostitutes conducted? And who conducted it? Smalley neglects to point her readers to her primary source.

And if kids are getting younger, with the FBI claiming the average age of a new recruit is "just 13," what was the average age last year? Or two years ago? Do any of these numbers really exist?

Smalley's next shot at putting a hard number on the crises comes later in the same paragraph, when the head of the "Paul & Lisa Program," an organization that helps exploited kids, claims, "Compared to three years ago, we've seen a 70 percent increase in kids from middle- to upper-middle-class backgrounds, many of whom have not suffered mental, sexual or physical abuse." But the fact that a program like Paul & Lisa is noting an increase in teen prostitution might mean the group has gotten better at spotting kids in trouble, or that word has gotten around to teen hookers that Paul & Lisa might help them.

Likewise, the fact that Las Vegas police arrested 25 juveniles for hooking in 1994 and 125 in 2002 may mean teen prostitution is on the rise in Sin City—or it may mean that police are cracking down on teen prostitution. Like the rest of Smalley's story, this is purely anecdotal. Shocking, yes; convincing, no.

But if Smalley is right—that a nation of Lolitas is remodeling suburban shopping malls into brothels—that would lend support to the silly story that appeared in yesterday's USA Today, which Press Box also ridiculed as bogus trendspotting. The USA Today piece in question claimed that more and more subteens are doing their own back-to-school clothes shopping. Well, if kids are working as prostitutes, they obviously don't need their parents to go to the mall with them, or to buy them clothes!

August 13 addendum: The Star-Tribunereports today that the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn., and Bloomington police dispute Newsweek's contention that the mall is a center of teen prostitute recruitment. "In a statement, the mall said no law enforcement agency has ever contacted the mall or Bloomington police to discuss teen prostitution or solicitation, and no arrests have been made for teen prostitution. To deter pimps, the mall has a parental escort policy, two outreach programs and a substation of the Bloomington police."

Enthusiasts of the trendspotting genre will also want to see Daniel Radosh's feature on the subject, published in the April 1998 GQ.

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Press Box thanks reader Chris Shea for the inspiration. Seen a bogus trend story? Send your tips 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.