The sixth or seventh paragraph of a bogus trend story usually contains the seed of its own destruction, but only rarely does a such trend story announce its bogusity in the subhead, as does a piece in today's (Sept. 4) Boston Globe.
"Vicious Attacks By Girl Cliques Seen Increasing," reads the piece's headline. The subhead—"Despite Police Statistics, Violence Causing Worries"—all but cancels the assertion of an increase in girl-on-girl violence. Indeed, the story's sixth paragraph cites Boston police statistics that show a decline in aggravated assaults by girls, ages 14 to 19. In the first eight and a half months of 2006, 112 such assaults were reported. Over the same period in 2007, 96 assaults were logged. The number of girls in custody is also down significantly, dispelling the notion of any burgeoning trend.
Ah, the defender of the Globe story might say the article headline doesn't say vicious attacks are increasing but are "Seen Increasing." The paper's two sources speculating in this direction insist that assaults are underreported, but neither provides any real evidence. The first source, an official from United Way, tells the paper that "stigma" and "fear" prevent today's girls from reporting the assaults. The second, a street worker, says the crimes don't come to the attention of police because they're not as violent as boy-on-boy violence. In a lame attempt to show that many assaults go unreported, the Globe locates one girl—just one—who got beat up and didn't report it. Not very convincing.
Reading the story's headline literally, one could say that what the Globe story really wants to be about is an increase in horrific, vicious assaults by girls on girls—not merely a total increase in the number of assaults. The central anecdote in the story supporting this reading recounts the razor slashing of 14-year-old girl's face. The wounds took 100 stitches to mend, which qualifies as a horrific and vicious assault in anybody's book. It's the only truly vicious attack described in the article.
But the slashing anecdote is from March 2006, which you recall is a period of greater girl-on-girl assaults than 2007, which makes it a horrible data point from which to project an increasing trend of vicious assaults. If another reporter were handed the same string the Globe collected for its article, he could write an equally persuasive story titled "Vicious Attacks By Girl Cliques Seen Decreasing."
That is, not persuasive at all.
Thanks to reader Ken Ralff for alerting me to the Globe story. Send tips, shanks, rumps, ribs, and tenderloins to firstname.lastname@example.org. (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum, in a future article, or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)