Bogus trend stories from the Times, the Post, and the Globe.

Bogus trend stories from the Times, the Post, and the Globe.

Bogus trend stories from the Times, the Post, and the Globe.

Media criticism.
July 22 2008 4:42 PM

A Midsummer Harvest of Bogus Trend Stories

Drivel from the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Boston Globe.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty.

The bogus trend story thrives thanks to the journalists who never let the facts get in the way when they think they've discovered some new social tendency. Take, for example, the story on Page One in today's New York Times titled "A Locally Grown Diet With Fuss but No Muss."Its first sentence declares, "Eating locally raised food is a growing trend."

Although the piece collects anecdotes from San Francisco; New York City; Santa Fe, N.M.; Berkeley, Calif.; Mill Valley, Calif.; the Hamptons, N.Y.; and Vermont, it presents no evidence of a rise in the consumption of locally raised food. The closest the piece comes to quantifying its assertion that backyard gardens, "cow pooling" arrangements, and vegetable subscription programs are taking off is the fuzzy sentiment sourced to a Bellevue, Wash., research firm that for a "growing number of diners, a food's provenance is more important than its brand name," and a National Restaurant Association survey of 1,200 chefs working at chain restaurants or large food companies. The survey found that locally grown produce was the second-hottest food trend—right after bite-sized desserts.

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The Times was beaten to this bogus trend by sister paper the Boston Globe on June 3 in a piece titled "Amid City Streets, a Growing Trend: High Produce Prices Send Urbanites in Search of a Spade and Handful of Seeds."

The Globe's proof that a million gardens are blooming comes from two companies: American Seed, which shipped 18 percent more vegetable seeds to dealers this year, and New England Seed, which says its vegetable seed sales are up about 20 percent from last year. But a one-year increase in seeds shipped or seeds sold by two companies doesn't necessarily constitute a trend. Has a competitor gone out of business, leaving the two firms with more market share? Were the frigging seeds even planted? Will they be brought to harvest? Or, as with every garden I've planted, will the sprouts fry themselves into ribbons of cellulose by August?

The Globe story makes much about the waiting list of 41 names at one Boston area community garden. Is that up or down from last year? The story doesn't say. But if you're interested in long-term trends, please see this 2002 business story in the Times about the seed business, which indicates that the American backyard garden is a wisp of its former self. In that story, the research director of the National Gardening Association tells the Times that the average backyard garden shrank from nearly 800 feet to 100 feet over the last quarter-century, attributing the decline to the wider selection of fruits and vegetables—including organic—in supermarkets. Both the Globe and the Times dispatches capture more noise than data.

The dailies find evidence that rising gas prices have prompted several trends. In a June 11 piece, the New York Times links higher gas prices to a dramatic increase in online college-class enrollment ("High Cost of Driving Ignites Online Classes Boom"). The Times reports:

At Bristol Community College in Fall River, Mass., for instance, online enrollments were up 114 percent this summer over last, and half the students queried cited gas costs or some other transportation obstacle as a reason for signing up to study over the Internet, said April Bellafiore, an assistant dean there.

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The article finds similar online enrollment trends at other colleges around the country, but are increased gas prices really driving enrollment? Adjust gas prices for inflation, and the commodity isn't that much more expensive today than in previous decades. Maybe rising online enrollment has more to do with the increased availability of online classes, growing broadband use, and word of mouth. In other words, if gasoline prices had stayed steady, would we still be experiencing a surge of online education? Probably. Once schools purchase computer servers and compose the Web pages, they have every incentive to steer students to online courses because they're cheaper to run than meatspace classes.

Today'sNew York Times credits the high price of travel with the growth of video conferencing in "As Travel Costs Rise, More Meetings Go Virtual." The only problem with the story is a convincing discussion of an increase in video conferencing. It reports that the technology company Hewlett-Packard, which sells "telepresence" technology, claims a 25 percent decline in air travel among H.P. offices that have its telepresence rooms, but is it any surprise that an increased number of H.P. employees might be using the company's own technology to take virtual meetings?

Pricey gas has allegedly shoved Washington-area penny pinchers onto motorcycles, according to the June 24 Washington Post ("Commuters Opt for Frugal Lane"). Motorcycles are cheaper than cars and get better mileage, the paper discovers, and motorcycle training schools are recording soaring enrollments.

A third of the way into the story, the Post reports that the state of Maryland has recorded an 8 percent increase in motorcycle registrations this year, and Virginia a 3.5 percent increase. Yet the story also reports that sales of new bikes nationwide fell 11 percent in the first quarter of 2008. How can registrations be rising if the influx of new bikes is falling? The story theorizes about "people dusting off machines that sat idle for years or those looking to save cash by opting for a used bike." But could that many mothballed motorcycles really be returning to service?

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The problem with most bogus trend stories is that they fail to look at long-term data—or any hard data at all. The U.S. Department of Transportation tracks the number of registered motorcycles: There were 5 million bikes registered to individuals and companies in 2002, 5.3 million in 2003, 5.7 million in 2004, 6.2 million in 2005, and 6.6 million in 2006, the last year for which I could find data. So even before the gas "crisis," national motorcycle registrations were growing between 6 percent and 8.8 percent annually.

The Post's motorcycle piece is thin, thin gruel, even for a trend story. But editors have huge appetites for such stories. I fully expect the paper to publish in the coming months a story about the growing trend of college students saving money by motorcycling to their online classes.

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Thanks to bogus trend spotters Kenneth D. Ralff, Mark Bulger, and Emily Anthesfor their sharp eyes. If you've seen a bogus trend story, drop me a line at slate.pressbox@gmail.com. (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.)

Track my errors: This hand-built RSS feed will ring every time Slate runs a "Press Box" correction. For e-mail notification of errors in this specific column, type the word bogus in the subject head of an e-mail message and send it to slate.pressbox@gmail.com.