Bogus Trend Stories of the Week
The Washington Post on tradesmen who've gone to college; the New York Times on teenage jackassery.
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.