Why Does The NY Times Rely So Often On Single Anecdote Trend Pieces Not Supported By The Data?

from the trend-pieces dept

A few months ago, we pointed to a NY Times "trend piece" on people so hooked on their gadgets that they get distracted. As we noted, the entire piece seemed to be based around a single anecdote of a guy who got distracted, and some scientific studies that don't actually support the underlying thesis of the article. I've noticed that this formula is all too common in NY Times tech trend pieces. We saw it more recently in the NY Times piece we wrote about claiming that cable TV was winning against the internet by purposely keeping authorized content offline, based off of a single anecdote of a guy who ditched his cable subscription only to go back a year later... just a day or so before the stats came out showing that people are actually ditching their cable connections.

It appears that others are catching on to this rather questionable form of "reporting" by the NY Times. Jack Shafer over at Slate is calling the NY Times out for a similar piece which was so ridiculous that the article itself contradicts the central thesis:
In the 11th paragraph of its Page One, Aug. 22 story about how technology--cell phones, GPS devices, satellite-location devices, and even video cameras--tends to get visitors to the national parks into trouble, the New York Times confesses the inherent bogusity of its premise, stating:
The National Park Service does not keep track of what percentage of its search and rescue missions, which have been climbing for the last five years and topped 3,500 in 2009, are technology related. But in an effort to home in on "contributing factors" to park accidents, the service recently felt compelled to add "inattention to surroundings" to more old-fashioned causes like "darkness" and "animals." [Emphasis added.]
Yet the newspaper persists in advancing its techno-made-the-visitors-get-in-trouble thesis, headlining the piece "For Parkgoers Pushing Luck, Technology and Trouble Got Together" in print and "Technology Leads More Park Visitors Into Trouble" online.
Shafer goes on to look at the details beyond the anecdotes and claimed single stat "climbing for the last five years" and finds that the NY Times' report is misleading at best:
Not precisely. The numbers, provided to me by the NPS, have been bouncing up and down. In 2004, the NPS conducted 3,216 search-and-rescue operations. In 2005, the number went down to 2,430 operations. In 2006, it rose to 3,623 operations. In 2007, it declined to 3,593 operations, and in 2008 declined again to 3,481. In 2009, the number rose to 3,593.
Search-and-rescue operations conducted between 1992 and 2009 actually peaked at 5,761 in 1998, according to the NPS. Over that same period, the average number of annual search-and-rescue missions was 4,027, which means that the figure the Times ended up ballyhooing ("topped 3,500") is below the 18-year average.

In other words, there has been no dramatic increase in the number of NPS search-and-rescue operations in the era of the mobile phone, the satellite phone, GPS, and the emergency beacon. Technology isn't leading more park visitors into trouble.
So, given that we've now seen this happen multiple times, perhaps we can pen a "trend piece" about how the NY Times writes its trends pieces based on a few anecdotes, contrary to what the data actually says. They're really making a strong case for why we should pay up to access the site once that paywall goes up in a few months, right?

Filed Under: anecdotes, data, trend pieces
Companies: ny times


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  1. icon
    TtfnJohn (profile), 27 Aug 2010 @ 11:09am

    There's ALWAYS a trend

    You see the thing about writing about trends is that trends aren't considered "hard news" which is more like "man bites dog who bit man" than trends are.

    Trends are anything a writer or editor thinks they are. The problem here is that while you can dash off a piece about trends in fashion with no facts whatever to back it up because no one will fact check you. Same with movies, plays or tv shows.

    This bit of nonsense strays more to hard news which requires some, a little I hope, fact checking instead of the almost none the errors indicate.

    If is a surprise that getting too close to a bison will invite a charge? No.

    Is it a surprise that feeding a bear may, in some cases with grizzlies, kodiaks and almost always with polar bears ends up with the feeder becoming lunch themselves?

    Is is a surprise that anyone with a camera might end up falling into a big hole if they're not paying attention be it a pin-hole, film, bad cell phone camera, 35mm film or whatever? No, it's called pay attention, regardless of technology?

    Is it a surprise that there are urbanoid jerks who suddenly appear in summer in the woods or on the water (fresh or salt) that have no idea and have made no preparation for what they're about to get into? No, because these people have a Disnified idea that the wild is a nice friendly place where all the animals sing and dance and wouldn't feel threatened by or afraid of the top predator on the planet? Try telling a Wolverine to sing and dance!

    It's also no surprise that some of "genus urbanoid" would press the panic button when there's no need to. They get one chance here and next time they're told to get in the chopper which has changed from Search and Rescue to RCMP and taken back to the detachment and charged with being a public nuisance or anything else the creative constable can come up with at the time. (At sea, in these parts, its the Coast Guard and oh boy can these people learn the finer points of maritime and naval law in a hurry!)

    In the meantime, I have to agree with SR84 that these devices are invaluable to air/sea/land search and rescue and save valuable time when there is a real emergency which, sadly, there often is when "genus urbanoid" wanders off without preparation and gets lost or finds themselves suddenly between a mama cougar and her cub despite all the evidence that there's a big cat around any maybe one should be careful and make a lot of noise to tell mama cougar to collect her cub(s) before you get there.

    No doubt the "reporter" and "editor" of this piece are members of "genus urbanoid" who do things any member or "genus rural" would think three times about doing. Makes for a good laugh of two at the pub or coffee shop, mind you!

    Nuff said.

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