"[T]here is much to be said in favour of modern journalism," Oscar Wilde once wrote. "By giving us the opinions of the uneducated, it keeps us in touch with the ignorance of the community."
I think of Wilde's words every time I carve a column out of the bogus trend story nominees submitted almost daily by readers and friends. The bogus trend story inflates the specific into the general, frightens the timid, exploits the guileless, and insults the intelligence of the wise. It is the journalism of grunts and moans, of unchecked stupidity and laziness, and wherever it appears it shrinks the collective IQ.
The leading offender in today's column is an item on the blog of CNN's Sanjay Gupta. The piece, "Parents Be Warned: Your Kids May Be 'Robo Tripping,' " (July 8) warns that there's a drug trend among kids called "Robo tripping," in which they consume great quantities of dextromethorphan—an active agent in some cough syrups.
That adolescents and others have used cough syrup over many decades to get high cannot be denied. That Robo tripping exists as a variant of this age-old practice cannot be denied, either. According to the great god Nexis, the first newspaper story using the term "robotripping" ran in a January 2000 edition of the Annapolis, Md., Capital. The first newspaper story about recreational use of dextromethorphan, or DXM, appeared in a January 1998 edition of the Akron Beacon Journal.
But the only evidence the blog item cites to support a Robo tripping "trend" is dusty data from a 2006 Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration report. According to CNN.com, SAMHSA says that 3 million people between 12 and 25 had used any over-the-counter cough medicine—not just dextromethorphan—to get high.
But visit the SAMHSA data directly, and you learn that 3 million number (3.1 million, actually) refers to "lifetime use" of over-the-counter cough and cold medications to get high. That means that if you chugged cough syrup just once, you'd qualify for inclusion in the statistic echoed by CNN.com. The number of 12- to 25-year-olds who used cough syrups to get high during the survey year? Just 1 million in a nation of about 300 million. * Some trend.
Today's other bogus drug trend comes from the Oklahoman, which ran a brain-bending article about "digital drugs" on July 12 (" 'Digital Drugs' at Mustang High School Have Experts Warning of Slippery Slope").The newspaper reports that kids are claiming to be getting high on "i-dosers," music and "tones" they download and listen to on headphones.
For real? The feeble souls who run the Oklahoman aren't sure, but they don't mind stirring up a moral panic with their ignorance. The paper reports, "Whether it was kids faking it, the power of suggestion or a high wasn't clear to administrators who investigated the students' claims." The paper provides no URL to the i-doser sites allegedly peddling these aural intoxicants, so there's no way for the reader to investigate the psychoactivity of the beats themselves.
Another hedge by the Oklahoman: Even if "digital drugs" don't get kids high, an Oklahoma drug enforcement spokesman states, you've got to worry about them leading to "marijuana" or "bigger things." Drug stories don't get any more bogus than this.
The Boston Globe, New England's finest newspaper, gets bogus with its thinking that "more" students are taking a break between high school and college ("Worn-out Students Choose a Timeout; More Take Break Before College," July 19).
How does the Globe know this? It doesn't! The "trend" is totally anecdotal, as the article ultimately confesses:
While there is no data showing how many Americans opt for a gap year, some admissions deans say they are seeing an increase this year following more publicity about the benefits of delaying enrollment.
Finally, today's Washington Post drops a bogus-trend bomb on Page One with a piece titled "As Metro congestion grows, so does anger at 'seat hogs.' " The article provides no evidence that Washington subway-rider anger is rising against folks who insist on occupying more than one seat at a time.
Actually, bogusity is the least of the story's crimes against journalism. It bestows anonymity upon three sources: a fellow who runs a Web site called Seathogs.com, a gentleman whose wife has a "sensitive government job," and a midshipman. Now that's something to get angry about.
Instead of getting angry about bogus trends in the press, maybe I should calm down and internalize Oscar Wilde's other trenchant observation about modern journalism. The master wrote:
By carefully chronicling the current events of contemporary life, it shows us of what very little importance such events really are.
Addendum, July 20, 2010: A couple of close readers of this column, Derek Mahlburg and Julia Kamin, pointed out to me via e-mail that I could have worded the last sentence of my Robo tripping item better. In it, I state the total population of the United States. For the purposes of comparison, the more relevant figure is the population of 12- to 25-year-olds. According to the 2000 census, the population of those between the ages of 15 and 24 was about 39 million, so it's safe to assume that the population of 12- to 25-year-olds in 2006 was somewhere between 45 million and 50 million.
Eternal thanks to my friend Jeff Riggenbach for locating and forwarding that Wilde quotation to me years ago. Thanks also to bogus-trend-spotters Christi Crawford, Tammy Gibson, Chuck Kapelke, Aaron "from Denver," Quinn Eastman, Sara Mayeux, Jared Chausow, and Joe Rominiec for their nominations. Send your evidence of bogus trends in the press to firstname.lastname@example.org and trip on my Twitter feed. (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.)