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
    Chris Maresca (profile), 27 Aug 2010 @ 6:10pm

    I've actually been on a search and rescue team...

    ... I was a volunteer at Acadia National Park in the early 1990's and on a state wide team as well. My specialty was high-angle rescue (e.g. cliffs and mountains), sometimes from helicopters.

    Technology has been putting inexperienced people in harms way for some time and the worst offender is probably not digital devices but clothing and modern materials. Stuff like GoreTex, synthetic fleece and other materials have allowed people to venture into situations that would have taken real courage 30-40 years ago when all you had was wool and waxed cotton. And the price of such tech has been coming down for years.

    The worst rescue I was on resulted in me spending the night with no tent on Mt. Katahdin one cold November when two idiots decided that a credit card was all you needed to climb it (they bought $thousand in gear + a book). No high tech gadgets were needed for them to get stuck.

    I would say that people having cell phones is both a blessing and a curse when you are rescuing people. In my day ;-) they were very rare, so just finding someone could take days by which time they were in serious trouble or dead. Now, with triangulation, it's a lot easier, with the downside people call for help more.

    On balance, I'd rather they call for help more than haul out a dead body, even if it is unnecessary sometimes. Besides, if tech gives people better access to wilderness areas, then maybe they'll be more interested in protecting and preserving them, which is a good thing, IMHO.

    But if you are looking to blame tech for more people in trouble, it's GoreTex, Thinsulate and Vibram that's to blame, not electronics....

    Chris.

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