Bogus Trend Stories of the Week: Child pornography, sextortion, and Chinese hymenoplasties.

Media criticism.
Aug. 17 2010 5:09 PM

Bogus Trend Stories of the Week

Child pornography, sextortion, and Chinese hymenoplasties.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty.

At this point, noting that a story has gotten big play only because there is no real news in August has become an August story itself.

But I persist with my analysis of three bogus trend articles published this month that stink sweetly of August. The first, moved by the Associated Press under the headline of   "DOJ Report Says Child Porn on the Rise" on Aug. 2 and published by thousands of newspapers and Web sites, undercuts itself with this quotation from the Department of Justice report:

The number of offenders accessing the images and videos and the quantity of images and videos being traded is unknown.

Presented with convincing data, I'm prepared to believe that child porn is growing. But if a Department of Justice report states that the number of offenders is unknown and the quantity of images and videos of child pornography being traded is also unknown, how can anybody say that the distribution of child porn is on the rise?

Solving this riddle would be easier if the AP named or linked to the DoJ report to Congress that it cites, but it does not, and I've failed to find the report myself.

Here's another bogus story from the AP: "Feds: Online 'Sextortion' of Teens on the Rise" (Aug. 14). Like the child-porn story, the sextortion piece also got play in thousands of newspapers and Web sites, and it carries a suspiciously similar disclaimer. Do the folks at AP store them on a hot key? The wire service reported:

No one currently tracks the numbers of cases involving online sexual extortion in state and federal courts, but prosecutors and others point toward several recent high-profile examples victimizing teens in a dozen states[.]

If the AP now considers anecdotes to be data, I've got a piece I want to write under the headline "Bogus News on the Rise at the AP."

For our last bogus story of the week, we take you to China, where the Aug. 17 edition of the Washington Post reports that the number of women undergoing hymenoplasty—the medical procedure in which virginity is "restored"—is reportedly "growing." (When retrieved online, the story's headline was "China, Land of Fake Rolexes, Now Sees Increasing Interest in Fake Virgins." The current online headline is "Knowing Cultural View of Virginity, Chinese Women Try Surgical Restoration." The print version of the Post (and Nexis) went with "In Virgin Seeking Culture, Surgery Meets Demand.")

What sort of data supports the Post's"growing" claim? Unlike the AP's porn and sextortion bogus trend stories, the Post doesn't come clean and say that no numbers have been collected. Its idea of data-collection is to state that "many Chinese doctors" perform hymenoplasties. But the Post talks to only one, a Beijing doctor named Zhou Hong, who claims that the number of hymenoplasties she's performing is increasing. This "increase" is not quantified, of course. We have to settle for Zhou's testimony that she "restores as many as 20 hymens monthly."

None of the other named sources in the Post article—a sociologist who calls hymenoplasties "self-deception," a product manager who says he values virginity in a woman, and a "novelist and social commentator" who muses about the cultural value of virginity—supply any data to clarify whether the procedure has become more popular, less popular, or stayed even over time.

Fake virgins. Bogus stories. Can you tell the difference?

******

Thanks to bogus trendspotters Tom Ginsburg, Matt Litman, Donald DiPaula, Hayden Hurst, Kazuo Oishi, and all the others who contributed. Want to see you name in print? Send a bogus trend story to slate.pressbox@gmail.com. If interest in my real Twitter feed increases, I promise to start a fake one. (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.