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


Reader Comments

Subscribe: RSS

View by: Time | Thread


  1. icon
    nasch (profile), 27 Aug 2010 @ 4:07pm

    Re: Re:

    This is true, but it is good to keep an eye on that technique. If used honestly (as I think Mike did) it's fine. But it can also be twisted to escape accountability.

    I can't find it, but Jon Stewart pointed out Fox doing this with a crawler that read something like "George Bush greatest US President?" They're really saying that Bush is great, but they don't want to back it up so they put a question mark at the end. Stewart's analogy was "Is your mother a whore? I'm not SAYING she's a whore, I'm just asking. People want to know if your mother accepts money for sex." Anyway, like I said, that's not what's going on here but good to keep in mind. And if anyone has a link to that clip, please post it because it's pretty funny.

Add Your Comment

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here



Subscribe to the Techdirt Daily newsletter




Comment Options:

  • Use markdown. Use plain text.
  • Remember name/email/url (set a cookie)

Follow Techdirt
Techdirt Gear
Shop Now: Copying Is Not Theft
Advertisement
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Essential Reading
Techdirt Deals
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Techdirt Insider Chat
Advertisement
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Recent Stories
Advertisement
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads

Close

Email This

This feature is only available to registered users. Register or sign in to use it.