Bogus trend stories of the week: meds-impaired drivers, doggie snubs, and the return of the bomb shelter.

Media criticism.
July 29 2010 5:16 PM

Bogus Trend Stories—Dog Days of Summer Edition

Meds-impaired drivers, doggie snubs, and the return of the bomb shelter.

Hanging in a bomb shelter. Click image to expand.
Hanging in a bomb shelter

Could it be that spotting bogus trends in the press is easier in the dog days of summer, when top editors go on vacation and journalistic standards of what constitutes a story begin to drop? That's my unproven hypothesis. Whatever the pattern, my readers discovered three totally bogus trend stories this week that I'd like to share.

First on the list is the New York Times, whichgets bogus with its July 25 story, "Drivers on Prescription Drugs Are Hard To Convict." As hedlines go, it's a real waffler. Does the hed mean to imply that drivers on meds have always been hard to convict or that they are getting harder to convict or that more meds-impaired drivers are on the road than ever before?

Even if you read the hedline literally, the story doesn't present evidence that drivers on prescription drugs are hard to convict. The story notes three arrests and two convictions. In the case of the first arrest, the Times does not report the resolution of the case. Did the woman charged plead guilty? Was the case dropped? Was she acquitted? These are slim data upon which to conclude that meds-impaired drivers are hard to convict.

How many meds-impaired drivers are out there? Midway through the story, the Times confesses it has no numbers:

There is no reliable data on how many drivers are impaired by prescription drugs, but law enforcement officials say the problem is growing so quickly that states are putting hundreds of police officers through special training to spot signs of drug impairment and clamoring for better technology to detect.

Even the prevalence of drug-impaired driving is unknown, since many states combine the arrest data with that for drunken driving.

If there are no reliable data, then why should readers accept the anecdotal testimony of cops that the "problem is growing"? Cops are always saying the problem—whatever it may be—is growing. They're unreliable sources who have a vested interest (bigger budgets, more power, more political support) in saying that a "problem" is growing.

At the end of the piece, Maryland's attorney general tells the Times that persuading a jury to convict meds-impaired drivers is difficult except in the most egregious cases. I'm willing to be convinced, but if that's really true, where are the data? Not in this story.

Meanwhile, the people at the Boston Globe appear to be editing while meds-impaired. They announced this week that "humans have started feuding over something new: the pet snub." The piece, titled "R.S.V.P. (People Only, Please): As pets become a bigger part of the family, when they're left off the guest list, the party's over," ran on July 29.

The Globe avoids all the usual bogus tropes in their story. They don't refer to "many" or "more" people adopting a new bogus practice. Instead, they allege that the practice of feuding over the non-invitation of one's pets to a party, event, or vacation has "started."

How could the Globe possibly know that people have never feuded over non-invitations of pets? Likewise, the Globe asserts that pet "owners are increasingly humanizing their animals." But when didn't people dress their dogs in tutus or set a place at the dinner table for them or insist on dragging them into restaurants and supermarkets and otherwise humanize them? The newspaper's assessment isn't based on observation or data. It arrives, soft, coiled, and stinky, out of the foul end of the Globe's digestive canal. Does somebody have a pooper-scooper I could borrow?

At USA Today, the hed says it all: "Doomsday Shelters Making a Comeback" (July 28).

How does USA Today know that doomsday shelters (aka bomb shelters) are coming back? Has it counted them over time?

Of course not. What data does the newspaper have? It talks to three builders of underground shelters, who say business is up. One of them says sales have doubled every year for five years, which is a very soft number if the sales from five years ago weren't that great. Note to USA Today: Please be more suspicious of self-reported data in the future, and when reporting percentage increases and decreases please include the raw numbers behind those percentages.

The paper also speaks to the developer of doomsday shelters who is refitting an existing underground building to house 134 people. The Mojave Desert structure will function as a sort of cooperative for its "members" in the event of an asteroid strike, a nuclear attack, or political chaos. The developer plans to construct a "nationwide group of 20 fortified, underground shelters," USA Today reports.

Hey, USA Today, get back to me after the guy builds and sells his 20 shelters and then we can talk honestly about the shelter comeback.

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Confused by the idiosyncratic spellings of hed and hedline? See this glossary. Thanks to my dog-day bogus trend-spotters Nicholas Kaufman, Ian Richmond, and Simon Waxman. See your name in print! Send me a bogus trend news story! Or send me a Fresca idea! The address is slate.pressbox@gmail.com. Visit my Twitter feed, which will double as my bunker when the Mayan end times arrive. (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.)

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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.