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September 26, 2005

Anecdotal Journalism

David's solid reporting unearthed the flawed survey behind the New York Times's front-page announcement last week that many women at top US colleges are planning to eschew high-powered careers in favor of motherhood. As David reported, the article based its conclusions in part on an email survey with some questions phrased to elicit responses fitting with the article's premise. Gelf and many other commentators criticized the story for its flawed methods. But it's worth remembering that most trend stories are far flimsier, pinned on a suspect sponsored study or two plus two or three anecdotes and quotes shoehorned into a faulty premise. The Times's story is far from the worst of the bunch, but its high-profile placement offers us a unique opportunity to propose the following: Rid our news pages of tendentious trend stories.

I'm all for hearing about a substantive change in the way we live, like a new technology, a new law, or a demographic shift detected by solid, peer-reviewed research. But enterprising young reporters could do a lot more good—and, for the business folks, create far more compelling and valuable content—by digging through public documents instead of inventing a fad. Of course, topics like the one covered by the Times story do grab a lot of attention—the motherhood article was one of the site's most-popular last week. But let's keep such stories to opinion and personal-essay pages, where they'll be framed as the conjecture and opinion that they are. (A follow-up New York Times column by a male writer responding personally to the premise that more women expect not to work was a better way to address the issue.) Hell, it'll be cheaper to produce trend stories without the shackles of pretending that the trends are as well-founded as the front-page story recounting, say, the devastation of a hurricane. As Slate's Jack Shafer wrote in an email to Gelf, "What sort of news judgment is the paper exercising to put something like this on Page One. At best, she's got a personal essay after all her heavy lifting."

Responsibility for such questionable stories being published, especially in prominent spots like the front page, lies with editors. The NYT reporter, Louise Story, was an intern incentivized to aim for front-page articles, just as any young journalist would. It was up to editors to steer her to more solid ground, or to couch the findings with more uncertainty. Of course, the findings were already couched by a dozen "manys," as Shafer pointed out; but Shafer noted in a follow-up column that "The Times and Story failed the reader by not stating that these findings were about as anecdotal and impressionistic as, say, the findings of a columnist like David S. Broder based on 100 interviews he conducted in Iowa to take the state's political temperature."

The survey's loaded questions point to another peril of the form: Trend stories usually are pursued with an agenda. Reporters don't go to editors to ask for time to investigate whether there is a trend; they're expected to know what the story and angle will be before reporting. Reporters should be an open book, curious and flexible-minded; trend-reporting demands instead a focused drive to gather facts and anecdotes that will fill out the article after the prepackaged lead, and to cast aside anything too damaging to the article's idea. Reporters earn their stripes by making the front page, not by quashing projects when they prove ill-conceived.

Case in point: One of the Times's interviewees said in an email to FishbowlNY that "She in fact did interview my other suitemates who answered the survey as either not wanting to have children at all, or would continue working as a mother. I am somewhat shocked that she did not include ANY of their ideas or views in the article." (The interviewee asked to stay anonymous, but complained about being quoted about "the status quo," which was a quote attributed to Angie Ku.)

A decade ago, the article would have generated some criticism, but the critics wouldn't have found each other without the Internet. By now, newspapers ought to be aware of the scrutiny any article might receive, and that a provocative NYT article is guaranteed to receive. How to engage this brave new world? With full transparency; Story's note about her methods, published three days after the article appeared, won't suffice. Editors have to ask themselves if readers would trust the story after knowing the story behind the story—if they would eat the sausage after seeing how it's made.

—David Goldenberg contributed to this post.

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