Bogus trend stories of the month—the New York Times corners the market.

Media criticism.
Feb. 3 2010 5:28 PM

Bogus Trend Stories of the Month

The New York Times corners the market.

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Once upon a time, rounding up the most egregious examples of bogus trend stories in the U.S. press was a lonely grind. But now, thanks to the editors and reporters of the New York Times—and my industrious readers—locating the silliest examples of journalistic overreach is a simple matter of reading the newspaper of record closely.

The Feb. 2 edition of the Times attempted to pump up a mundane story about young men at a few parishes who beat the crap out of one another in the name of Christ into a trend piece ("Flock Is Now a Fight Team in Some Ministries," Page One). Here's the flimsy trend graf:

Mr. Renken's ministry is one of a small but growing number of evangelical churches that have embraced mixed martial arts—a sport with a reputation for violence and blood that combines kickboxing, wrestling and other fighting styles—to reach and convert young men, whose church attendance has been persistently low.

The Times accepts estimates from pastors who figure that 700 of the nation's 115,000 white evangelical churches have taken up mixed martial arts. But the story names only three palooka ministries: Xtreme Ministries, Canyon Creek Church, and Victory Baptist Church. How do we know that the movement is growing? The piece hypes the fact that a company named Jesus Didn't Tap markets apparel for the Fight-Club-for-Jesus crowd and that a social-networking site for the movement exists but offers no evidence that this tendency has taken root and is growing. (Hat tip to spotter Bill Zepernick.)

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The Times uncovered a different pugilistic trend just two weeks ago in a story claiming that an increasing number families were escalating domestic quarrels over how green they must be to therapists for adjudication ("Therapists Report Increase in Green Disputes," Jan. 18). 

What green disputes is the Times talking about? As trend-mongering goes, this is a pretty shoddy piece of work. Stephen Nellis, the reader who tipped me to this story, notes that the article never establishes that the "green disputes" aren't just "manifestations of more common relationship problems." He also comments that the article loosely defines a "green dispute" as any argument in which the topic is green. It could involve a green wife and her anti-green husband or a green wife whose green husband isn't quite green enough for her.


Have any of the disputants named in the article seen a therapist to help resolve their green fights? The article doesn't say. Although the headline posits an increase in these green family disputes, the 11th paragraph concedes that no data exist for that position. The Times reports:

While no study has documented how frequent these clashes have become, therapists agree that the green issue can quickly become poisonous because it is so morally charged.

About four weeks ago, the Times applied similar rigor to a piece about men falling out of love with home ownership ("Men Who Jump the Picket Fence," Jan. 7). It finds five youngish men—a playwright, a government employee, a business consultant, a businessman, and a doctor—who have decided that they dislike house payments and upkeep and have gotten rid of their places.

Why does this rise to the level of a New York Times story? The paper reports, "For reasons practical, financial and definitely emotional, there seems to be a growing cohort of men like [playwright Alan Berks] who are falling out of love with the holy institution of homeownership."

Notice the big, fat, fudgy word "seems."

The next passage in the article acknowledges that the "numbers behind this disenchantment are only suggestive." The piece then cites a university study showing that men and women under 40 "report roughly equal levels of satisfaction with homeownership," which would argue against the thesis that there is a growing cohort of men falling out of love with homeownership.

The piece presents a lot of psychobabble to support why some men exit from homeownership, but the only data point presented that remotely supports the article's argument is a finding by the National Association of Realtors that more single women than single men have bought homes in the last 12 months (21 percent vs. 10 percent) and that that gap has widened in the last decade.

But who cares? The Times story isn't about whether more single women than single men buy houses. It's about men who buy and then jump the picket fence! (Hat tip to spotter Steven D. Schroeder.)

Addendum: A Nexis search reveals that there is a long history of churches teaching "karate for Christ," which would argue against mixed-martial-arts for Christ being any sort of new trend. See my Nexis dump in the comments below.

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Many thanks to Slate intern Cecile Dehesdin and the spotters for their help. Seen a bogus trend in the press that should be smashed? Send it to slate.pressbox@gmail.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name in 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 Xtreme in the subject head of an e-mail message, and send it to slate.pressbox@gmail.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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