How to explain the explosion of bogus-trend spotting from my readers? Are they getting better at spotting ginned-up journalism, or are news outlets now competing for inclusion in this space? Both, perhaps?
My inbox so overflows with submissions from readers, complete with annotations, that it won't be long before I'll be able to open a document file, fill the file with e-mails, point the file down hill, give it a shove, and watch as my bogus trend stories write themselves.
The primest of prime bogus trends comes to us from the Daily Beast. "Cuckolding, in which men watch their wives have sex with other guys, is catching on among people with high IQs who revel in the psychological agony," the site reports ("The Intellectual Sex Fetish," July 29).
Catching on? With whom? And how does the Beast know? "Just check out the online forums like OurHotWives.org/forum, where letter-perfect postings celebrate cuckoldry as a cerebral pursuit," the Beast reports. OK, there's one data point—an anonymous message board. Then the piece introduces us to Paul and Sally Pines. Every now and then, Paul likes to watch as Sally gets boned by another guy in the hotel room they've checked into. Then he likes to serve them lunch. OK, there are two data points. Then the Beast talks to a sex therapist who caters to cuckolds, helping them extract the greatest pleasure from the experience. OK, three data points.
Are you convinced that cuckolding is catching on? Me neither. I'm as happy as the next guy that the Beast wants to cover the kinky sex beat, as long it doesn't pretend its soft porn is news.
USA Today has the ultimate real estate story—it reports that cemeteries are having trouble selling plots ("Market Weak for Selling Cemetery Plots," July 22). The newspaper's best source? Robert Fells, an attorney for a trade association that represents funeral homes, crematoriums, and cemeteries. The first sign that the story is bogus comes in this confessional passage, as USA Today reports, "Though no industrywide statistics are available about the glut of cemetery plots, Fells says there's plenty of anecdotal evidence."
Need we go on with the anecdotal evidence? Oh, why not? * There are 5,000 plots for sale on Craigslist. But since when is the number of listings on Craigslist or eBay alone indicative of the strength or weakness of a market? Additionally, the story speculates that cremation has helped put a crimp in cemetery plot demand. But the increase in cremation reported by USA Today seems small—rising from 29.5 percent in 2003 to 32 percent in 2007.
What crap. USA Today should have killed and buried this piece in a shallow grave.
The New York Times, a reliable source of bogus trends stories, tries to tell us something about plagiarism on college campuses in a Page One story. But what? The closest I can come to a summary is quoting the piece's hed, "Plagiarism Lines Blur for Students in Digital Age" (Aug. 2).
The piece seems to be implying that plagiarism is increasing, stating the existence of "a disconnect that is growing in the Internet age as concepts of intellectual property, copyright and originality are under assault. ..." But measurement of that "growth" is shaky. The piece cites a survey of 14,000 undergraduates between 2006 and 2010 that found 40 percent had "admitted to copying a few sentences in written assignments." But standing on its own, this statistic tells us almost nothing. The story tries again with survey results stating that the percentage of students who believe Web copying is "serious cheating" has declined from 34 to 29. But is that decrease statistically significant?
The piece reports that the University of California-Davis referred 196 plagiarism cases to the disciplinary office last year. But in the absence of comparison data from previous years, this number illustrates neither blur nor growth. By dropping so many numbers into its story, the Times is obviously trying to measure something. But what? I'm totally prepared to believe that campus plagiarism is increasing and that attitudes about plagiarism are changing, but the Times piece doesn't convince me of anything.
I've saved the worst for last. A Time magazine story asks in its lede, "Why are a rising number of French women killing their newborn babies?" The piece ("Why Are French Women Killing Their Babies?" July 29) informs readers that a mother allegedly smothered eight of her infants and buried them in northern France, and the incident was the fifth multiple infanticide in the country since 2003.
But the magazine makes absolutely no effort to look at pre-2003 infanticide data to prove its claim of an increase. None. I feel so intellectually cuckolded by Time that I think I'll check into a hotel room, invite the magazine's editors over, watch them make violent love to one another, and then make them lunch.
Thanks to bogus trendspotters Deanor Barkhorn, Steven Antalics, Jed Fowler, Mickey Snider, Paul Sweeney, Chris Dorman, William Montgomery, Jane Savage, Jon Blumenfeld, Dave Mulholland, Alan Stamm, and all who contributed. If you want to buy an occupied cemetery plot, a cuckolded cuckoo clock, a preowned term paper, or a dead baby, don't send mail to email@example.com. Watch my Twitter for random bogus-trend alerts. (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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Correction, Aug. 4, 2010: The original version of this story misstated the price a Florida couple was charging for the pair of cemetery plots and burial vaults they were selling. The passage has been removed. (Return to the corrected paragraph.)