We end the week with a tie.

Media criticism.
Nov. 12 2010 6:00 PM

Bogus Trend Week—The Readers Take Over

We end the week with a tie.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty.

I've been laboring in these pages since 2003 to bury the bogus trend story—those news stories that inflate a few well-chosen anecdotes, prejudices, and stupidity into full-blown societal trends. I've ripped bogus pieces about people giving up bathing, women riding bikes, the connection between crime and Yankees caps, the emergence of flat-chested pride, the increase in national park search-and-rescue, and all other topics— Chinese hymenoplasties, cuckolding, drivers buzzed on meds, "robo-tripping" and digital drugs, "circle lenses,"choking games, sack-tapping, marijuana cuisine, and Pakistanis impersonating Indians.

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My partners in bogus trend-spotting have been Slate readers, who quickly picked up on how to identify them. Hardly a day goes by now that a reader doesn't e-mail me a bogus trend story discovery, often delineating the piece's essential bogosity in a couple of paragraphs in his correspondence. One marker of a bogus trend story is an abundance of such weasel words  as some, few, often, seems, likely, and more, all of which allow a writer to simultaneously state a strong assertion and couch it. Another is an article with no data, just a string of anecdotes to support his thesis of a new or growing trend. The reliable marker of bogosity is a dodgy phrase like "reliable numbers are hard to come by" in a news story.

Like ducks on June bugs, Slate readers have become such experts at spotting and scuttling bogus trend stories in their correspondence with me that I've decided to turn the job over to them this week. Readers who discover a bogus trend story this week—in a newspaper, magazine, Web outlet, TV, radio, it doesn't matter—are invited to send the URL to me with your concise two- or three-paragraph critique of its bogosity. Depending on the response, I hope to publish one reader-submitted piece of bogus trend-spotting in this space.

Send submissions to my special bogus e-mail address, jackshafer@yahoo.com. Please include your name, which will be published, and your day-time phone number, which won't. Submissions will be edited for length and clarity by me.

Let the bogus bashing begin!

Bogus Trend Stories of the Day, Friday, Nov. 12

We end the contest with a tie between a New York Times story about retailing and a Kansas City Star piece about heroin use. Thanks to all who entered. —Jack Shafer

The fourth paragraph of the New York Times story "In These Lean Days, Even Stores Shrink" (Nov. 10, 2010) contains this telling line: "Anchor Blue is among a growing number of retailers thinking small—chopping off big chunks of stores or moving to more efficient spaces."

The article then proceeds to give us not a single example, other than Anchor Blue, of any retailer "chopping off a big chunk of a store." All of the other stores mentioned are "experimenting" with smaller-sized stores, which is hardly a revolutionary retailing concept. This sort of "creative thinking" goes back to at least the 1940s, when Sears, Roebuck & Co. ventured into small towns not with full-sized department stores but rather with catalog sales desks.

Basically, this Page One page story tells us that one retail chain has mothballed a portion of some of its stores and that two other retail chains are using smaller stores in smaller markets and bigger stores in bigger markets. Thanks for the update, Times!

—John Dellaportas

A Kansas City Star headline from today's edition (Nov. 12) reports "Heroin Snaring More of Suburbia's Youth" but it never substantiates the claim, attributing it only to unnamed "experts."

Furthermore, the Star finds that "the numbers" of young heroin users "are quite small," but never states a number.

Most of the evidence cited by the Star is anecdotal. The piece does cite heroin-overdose statistics in Johnson County for 2008 and part of 2009 but makes no attempt to compare those figures to previous years. And these statistics appear to be for all overdoses, not just for teens and youth.

One young heroin user in the story says that she has "heard that friends have younger brothers and sisters addicted to heroin." Even if she's telling the truth, the fact that she's heard something is hardly a bankable statement about the prevalence of heroin use. Toward the end of the piece, the Star undermines its headline, reporting, "Area high school officials said they had caught students smoking marijuana and possessing prescription drugs, but not with heroin yet." 

Press Box readers will appreciate that the story also claims that police have knowledge of "pharm parties" in the area, although no details are given about where or when the parties have been held.

—Jim Pennington

Bogus Trend Story of the Day, Thursday, Nov. 11

Reader Micaela Ridge demolishes the Wall Street Journal's man-cave story. Tomorrow will bring our last bogus-trend contest. You've got to enter to win! —Jack Shafer

The Wall Street Journal's article, "Giving the Man Cave a Makeover: Once Relegated to the Garage, Rooms Get So Nice, Wives Muscle In; Pool Table or Quilting Table?" (Nov. 10, 2010), takes one trend in need of investigation, man caves, and invents another, man caves used by women. The article is based on the stories of five couples whose homes have so-called man caves that the women and children occasionally use.

The article attempts to establish the original man-cave trend by naming a man-cave TV show and three companies that target man-cave decoration. However, the piece does not share those retailers' sales figures or the ratings for the TV show (Man Caves) to establish the depth of this alleged trend. The possible development of a woman-cave TV show and a marketing campaign by a home store are offered as slim proof of a rise in woman caves.

The article attributes the "evolution of the man cave to a multipurpose space" to the "struggling housing market," although it does not provide any numbers to support that assertion. It also states that "a growing number of women say they retreat" in man caves without documenting that claim.

Elsewhere, the article signals its bogosity by using such phrases as "more homeowners," "the occasional quilting party," and "the wife typically" instead of more substantive and verifiable language.

—Micaela Ridge

Bogus Trend Story of the Day, Wednesday, Nov. 10

Reader Erin Piateski spotted this piece of bogosity in the New York Times. Doing the arithmetic on her fingers, she calls B.S. on the piece. There will be a new contest tomorrow and Friday, so keep those submissions coming. —Jack Shafer

"Flier Patience Wears Thin at Checkpoints," from the Business section of the Nov. 9, 2010, New York Times,starts off in a straightforward manner, explaining that various travel associations are complaining about the checkpoint security process. 

But at its midpoint, the piece veers into bogus-trend territory, stating but failing to substantiate that airline passengers are suffering longer lines and longer waits at airport security checkpoints, and that they are getting increasingly annoyed. 

How much longer are the lines? "Longer," according to the article. How much longer is the wait time?  The article informs us that the Transportation Security Administration no longer tracks passenger wait times, so naturally there are no firm numbers to apply to this so-called trend. According to the TSA's new recording system—which only records whether passengers wait more or less than 20 minutes—in 2010, 99 percent of all passengers waited "less than 20 minutes" in a security line. Compare this to the previous data collection system, which found an "average peak wait times" of 15 minutes. Because the method of measuring has changed from "average peak wait times" to "more or less than 20 minutes," it's difficult to document whether average times have gotten longer or shorter.

The presentation of these numbers is followed by the classic cop-out, "But anecdotal feedback about security wait times varies widely depending on whom you ask." The piece proceeds to quote another trade association that wasn't aware of any complaints about longer security lines, and then quotes a single annoyed traveler who is unhappy with his wait time for a single flight. A single flier whose patience is wearing thin—along with an assortment of trade organizations with a vested interest in reducing security checks—add up to a trend in this piece.

—Erin Piateski

Bogus Trend Story of the Day, Tuesday, Nov. 9

Reader Glenn Grayson submitted this winning entry from CNN.com—it's all anecdote and no hat about women wearing non-white wedding dresses. There will be a new contest tomorrow, Thursday, and Friday, so keep those submissions coming. —Jack Shafer

"Brides Buck Tradition and Ditch the White Dress," published in CNN.com on Nov. 5, observes that brides are now getting married in colors other than white. The story, which collects anecdotes from three brides and a three wedding consultants, fails to support the headline. The wedding consultants say that most people are traditional, but that some women are adding colorful sashes to the white dress.  The article also finds that the wearing of nonwhite dresses is more common in second weddings—but who doesn't know that already? The author appears to have realized that her article had no numbers to back her thesis up because she tosses in a statistic about the increase in the overall cost of weddings, which has nothing to do with the story. The piece never says that women are fleeing white dresses because they're too expensive.

—Glenn Grayson

Bogus Trend Story of the Day, Monday, Nov. 8

Reader Jeff Quest submitted this winning entry about Associated Press coverage of that old perennial, thrift-store and consignment-store chic. I'm running a bogus trend story of the day contest every day this week, so if you entered and didn't win, try again tomorrow! —Jack Shafer

Now even rich people are looking for a deal! Why buy that $300 shirt when you can get the same thing for $120? The problem with this Associated Press story, "In a Tough Economy, Old Stigmas Fall Away" (Nov. 8, 2010), is not that there couldn't be a trend there somewhere. It's that this story is entirely anecdotal and includes no real facts confirming any of the trends the story puts forth. 

The AP story even pulls out the phrase "And in a telling trend" when discussing the rise in layaways. The two examples are Toys R Us that just started a layaway program and elayaway.com. Saying that Elayaway.com has seen a huge jump in usage by people making more than $60,000 since the recession doesn't seem as good a barometer. They appear to only have been in business since a little over a year before the recession began.

A quick search finds many "Growth of Thrift Stores" stories over the years, in both boom and bust economic times. See the New York Times story " They Can Get It for You Resale; Secondhand Stores Moving Into the Retail Mainstream" by Leslie Kaufman, from April 26, 2000. 

—Jeff Quest

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