Bogus trend stories of the week: The Post on tradesmen who've gone to college; the Times on teenage jackassery.

Media criticism.
June 15 2010 5:19 PM

Bogus Trend Stories of the Week

The Washington Post on tradesmen who've gone to college; the New York Times on teenage jackassery.

Hard hat. Click image to expand.
The Post reports an uptick in tradesmen who've attended college

When the nation's two most esteemed newspapers clot their column inches with bogus trend stories, I have but one option: Give them the Press Box Bogus Trend Stories of the Week Award. The Washington Post gets it for the bogusity contained in a story about college-educated tradesmen, and the New York Times gets it for a slippery piece about teenage jackassery.

One of the surest signs of a bogus trend story is a disclaimer that backs off from the hype contained in its hed. The Post piece follows this pattern, making a big sell in its hed, "More college-educated jump tracks to become skilled manual laborers" (June 15), before paring back with the fifth-paragraph assertion that there is a "small but apparently growing number of the college-educated who are taking up the trades."

A "small number" that is "growing" should be quantifiable, right? Even one that is "apparently growing." But when the Post piece finally examines the data in the 18th and 19th paragraphs, here's what it finds:

Nationwide, 550,000 people are enrolled in registered apprenticeship programs, according to the Labor Department, and the number of students in unregistered programs might be almost as high.

But determining how many went to college is difficult. Bureau of Labor Statistics surveys from 2009 show that more than 7 percent of workers in the construction trade have at least a bachelor's degree, up from less than 6 percent in 1990 and 2000. The surveys are small, though, and not statistically reliable. [Emphasis added.]

In other words, there has been no demonstrable increase over the past decade in the percentage of folks in the construction trades who graduated from college. Notice that the Post doesn't log the absolute change (if any) in the total number of people in the trades. For all the reader knows, the actual number of tradesmen is decreasing. If that's the case, the number of tradesmen who graduated from college might actually be going down.

The rest of the Post story sustains itself on anecdotes about this guy or this gal who went to college and then ditched professional life for a trade. But what veteran of college doesn't have a classmate who became a welder, a carpenter, a mechanic, an electrician, or a plumber? Sheesh!

The New York Times scores its bogus trend award for a column by Tara Parker-Pope titled "Stupid Teenage Tricks, for a Virtual Audience" (June 15).

Parker-Pope's lede asks, "Is the Internet making teenagers do more dumb things than ever?" Then, after reporting that some child specialists think so, Parker-Pope gives up, writing:

There are no data to demonstrate whether Web-inspired recklessness is really increasing or whether teenagers are taking the same risks as earlier generations—and just finding it easier to document idiotic exploits for all to see. [Emphasis added.]

It's a minor crime against journalism to ask in a lede—even rhetorically—whether something is true if the writer knows it is not. If the writer resorts to the device to pump up a nonstory, it's a major crime.

The meatiest part of Parker-Pope's column discusses the published findings of Canadian medical researchers who investigated YouTube postings of "the choking game." The choking game has long been practiced by bored adolescents in search of a free high: A "brief euphoric state," as the researchers put it, can be achieved by cutting off the normal blood flow to the brain. In isolated cases, the choking game has resulted in death.

Parker-Pope writes that the "researchers reported on the growing number of online videos documenting recreational asphyxiation, commonly called 'the choking game.' " But she is mistaken. The researchers' article, abstracted here, makes no attempt to demonstrate an increase in the number of online videos. The researchers limited their study to 65 choking-game videos they "identified and viewed" on YouTube between Oct. 22 and Nov. 2, 2007. The only "increase" charted by the researchers was the number of viewings of the choking-game videos over a three-week period. (They recorded a 61 percent increase in viewings over that time—from 173,550 to 279,240.)

That more people might be watching kids do stupid, dangerous things on YouTube is not something to have a cow about, something the Canadian choking-game researchers concede. They write:

There is no causal link between YouTube allowing increased access to videos and any increase in participation and increase in morbidity and mortality. It is possible that YouTube has merely allowed access to a previously unobserved activity.

As of this writing, YouTube isn't encouraging the world's youth to take up the choking game. (Nor am I! Being conscious is the highest form of consciousness!) Every video on the first page of a YouTube search for "choking game" essentially warns viewers against the practice. Some of the videos memorialize kids who have died while playing the game.

Bogus Bonus! While not as egregious as the tradesmen and choking-game stories, the New York Times deserves a minor bogus-trend beating for its June 3 story "Terrariums Make a Comeback." Yes, yes, terrariums may be making a comeback, but other than noting the 24,000 viewings of a YouTube video about how to make a terrarium and reporting an online shop's claim that it has sold "a gazillion" terrarium kits, the piece makes no attempt to support its hed.

******

"The Choking Game and YouTube: A Dangerous Combination," the Canadian journal article cited in the Times, offers these euphemisms for the practice: Space Monkey, Flatliner, Breath Play, Space Cowboy, Funky Chicken, Suffocation Roulette, Passout, Tingling, California High, Rising Sun, Sleeperhold, American Dream, Airplaning, and Intento Dismayo (loose translation, "intending to faint"). Thanks to Dan Abendschein (tradesmen), Michael Crider and Peter Copelas (choking game), and Zachary Pegan (terrariums) for their tips. Thanks to Slate intern Claire Grossman for research. Send your bogus-trend nominations to slate.pressbox@gmail.com. Submit to the brief euphoric state that is my Twitter feed. (E-mail may be quoted by name in Slate's readers' forums; in a future article; or elsewhere, unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

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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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