September 21, 2010

After Jack Shafer called out The New York Times for running a “bogus trend story” about criminals wearing Yankees caps, journalists had fun with the criticism on Twitter.

The Times’ Nicholas Kristof tweeted
: “@jackshafer Quit picking on us! Don’t you understand that in journalism, the plural of anecdote is trend?” CJR’s Clint Hendler responded: “@nickkristof. One of my faves: How does a journalist count to three? One, two, trend.”

But anecdotal evidence is hardly ever sufficient. Just ask Shafer, a media critic at Slate who has spent the past eight years writing about bogus trend stories. As often as a few times a month, he questions the validity of trends such as teens with bombs, drivers with drugs and dudes with cats.

“I think we write trend stories because we think they’re news,” Shafer said in a phone interview. “We write bogus trend stories because we’re wrong, we’re lazy, and we’re mentally tardy.”

In his criticism of the Times, Shafer referred to a part of the story that said since 2000, more than 100 suspects or persons of interest in serious crimes wore Yankees garb while committing crimes or getting arrested.

Shafer pointed out that more than 8 million people live in New York City and about 2,000 criminal complaints are reported each week. Given these numbers and the popularity of the Yankees, Shafer wrote that “it would be a miracle if at least 100″ people hadn’t been wearing Yankees caps.

“I think that the crime is the story was published,” Shafer told me. “It’s a misdemeanor that it’s on Page 1. It compounds the felony, but not by that great of a degree. It’s just bizarre that they turned a nonstory into a story.”

Common red flags in trend stories

Often, journalists reporting on fake trends will make a claim in the nut graph and then recant or qualify it later in the story. Shafer used last week’s Times story as an example.

The story initially states that many criminals wear Yankees caps. Then comes this sentence: “In some ways, it is not surprising that Yankees attire is worn by both those who abide by the law and those who break it. The Yankees are one of the most famous franchises in sports, and their merchandise is widely available and hugely popular.”

“Weasel words” — some, few, often, seems, likely — are red flags in fake trend stories. Many is a common weasel word that serves writers who don’t have data to support their arguments, Shafer said. Journalism isn’t an exact science, he acknowledged, so a few weasel words are OK. But when they’re used excessively, they can undercut the premise of the story.

Use of the word anecdotally is another common characteristic of fake trend stories, said Shafer, who doesn’t claim to have invented this genre of media criticism.

When Shafer first started writing about bogus trends, he usually found the stories on his own. Now, his readers alert him to the majority of the pieces he writes about.

“Most evenings as the next day’s press starts going up on the Web, I’ll start to get a daily trickle of suggestions from newspapers,,,” Shafer said. “It’s sort of become a crowdsourced feature at this point.”

Shafer has also received messages from reporters who tell him about deplorable stories by their own colleagues. And — occasionally in jest — his readers accuse him of writing bogus trend stories. Shafer said this happened after he wrote a recent piece about the fallen status of books.

Is the Times a target?

Some of these fake trend stories are written by high-profile news organizations such as The Washington Post, USA Today and The Wall Street Journal. And many are published by The New York Times.

That doesn’t mean that the Times runs more fake trend stories than other media outlets. (If I made that anecdotal claim, I would risk turning this story into a bogus trend piece.) But it does raise an interesting question about why Shafer writes about the Times so much.

“I’m not sure if that’s because The New York Times runs more of them or because we scrutinize them more,” Shafer said. “Why it seems to be heavily represented in my column may be because I read the Times closely and so do other readers, or it could mean that there are screws loose at the paper.”

Some of Shafer’s criticisms are well taken, says Philip Corbett, The New York Times’ associate managing editor for standards. Shafer does a good job, for instance, of pointing out when numbers were misrepresented or misused, Corbett said. But he said Shafer can take his criticisms too far by making it seem as though “no one should write a feature story of any kind without a peer-reviewed statistical analysis attached.”

Shafer sometimes picks apart stories that don’t intend to prove that a trend has emerged, Corbett said. They may simply be feature stories about interesting topics that people are talking about.

“A lot of new and interesting topics emerge, and get people talking, long before any definitive, scientific data is gathered. Part of what a good reporter does is pick up on what people on the beat are talking about, what their impressions are,” Corbett said via e-mail. “If the people you’re talking to — cops, teachers, real estate brokers, teenagers — say they’re seeing something new and interesting, that might well be news, even if no one has done a study yet.”

The key, Corbett said, is to be clear with your audience about what you know.

“Sometimes what Shafer derides as ‘climbing down’ or ‘recanting’ a story is just a reasonable caveat — being clear with the reader about what we can and can’t determine,” Corbett said. “So we might point out that no one has definite statistics on some phenomenon, but that knowledgeable people we’ve interviewed say they’re seeing X, Y or Z. That’s not undercutting the story; that’s explaining what reporting we’ve done, what we know and what we don’t know.”

Shafer’s criticism met with silence

Though journalists can be quick to pick apart others’ bogus trend stories, they rarely speak up when Shafer targets their work. In all the years he’s called out fake trend stories, Shafer said he can think of only one reporter who followed up with him.

The reporter contacted Shafer two years later to say that newly released data supported the trend he had reported on. The media critic was quick to state the obvious: “But there was no evidence at the time you write the story.”

Shafer rarely includes reporters’ names in his criticisms, which may explain why he doesn’t get many responses from them.

“I used to name reporters, but not anymore. I sort of started applying that rule across the board to all of my criticisms,” he said. “I think that the real target in most cases is the publication, not the individual. I make exceptions when I think their specific work as opposed to what the publication puts out is deserving of naming. It’s a loose rule.”

Corrections (or the lack thereof) on trend stories

Shafer said he hasn’t seen any news organization run a correction in which they acknowledged publishing a fake trend story. That’s not surprising; media rarely correct “bigger picture” errors such as an unsubstantiated premise.

“The truth is that news organizations won’t correct a trend story unless there is some kind of factual error,” said Craig Silverman, who regularly tracks corrections on his “Regret the Error” blog. “Maybe they get a statistic wrong, or tell an anecdote incorrectly. But to admit that a trend story suffered from insufficient reporting or lazy thinking? That’s very rare.”

Silverman, managing editor of PBS MediaShift and its sister blog Idea Lab, mentioned a couple of exceptions. In 2006, The San Francisco Chronicle published a story stating that the number of white residents in Oakland had surpassed the number of African-Americans and that the city’s overall population had declined. It later ran a correction that said because the information was not based on an actual count of the population, it was “impossible to verify the trends reported in the story.”

And in 2004, several news organizations reported on a trend called “toothing,” in which people would supposedly use Bluetooth-enabled devices to arrange sexual encounters. When the creators of “toothing” admitted that it was a hoax, some news orgs ran corrections.

Shafer’s criticisms are a good reminder that while it is appealing to reveal trends involving drunkorexics, feisty Christians and fake virgins, we would serve our audiences better if we were more open about what we know and don’t know, rather than assuming that just because a few people do something, it’s a trend.

All this talk about fake trends might make you wonder what, according to Shafer, makes a good trend story. “Truth and information that’s verifiable,” Shafer said. “Everything that good journalism is supposed to be. It’s that simple.”

If only it were.

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As managing editor of The Poynter Institute’s website,, I report on the media news industry, edit the site’s How To section, and moderate the…
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