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August 6, 2008

Obama's Weight Problem (and Other Bogus Trends)

When a big trend story in a major newspaper about the presidential election strikes many people as laughable, at least one person as racist, and reminds still others of a satirical news segment, there's a problem. But the biggest problem is that trend stories based on offhand anecdotes are still published in the first place.

When the Wall Street Journal's Amy Chozick wrote the article "Too Fit To Be President?" about the possibility that Barack Obama's zero-percent body fat would undermine his campaign to lead an ever-more obese nation, she probably wasn't thinking of the Onion News Network's over-the-top segment on the subject. Nor was she thinking of the Happy Days episode in which nervous white kids replace the term "black" with "skinny."

But she almost certainly anticipated the criticism that her story was a fluffy piece of crap based on a spurious trend. In fact, she went out of her way to collect anecdotes to bolster her point. In a Yahoo message board posting, Chozick, without stating she was a journalist, asked, "Does anyone out there think Barack Obama is too thin to be president? Anyone having a hard time relating to him and his 'no excess body fat'? Please let me know. Thanks!"

Chozick ignored the responses mocking her query and instead published the one reply that backed up her thesis. ("I won't vote for any beanpole guy," replied onlinebeerbellygirl.) After numerous blog complaints that Chozick solicited her money quote, the Wall Street Journal published an amplification that noted, "The article should have disclosed that the reporter used the bulletin board to elicit the comment." (Chozick exchanged an email with Gelf earlier this week and promised to call to further discuss her article, and the controversy surrounding it. That was before the correction was issued. Since that time, and despite our attempts to follow up, we haven't heard from her.)

Should Chozick have included in the article that she purposely solicited this quote by creating the message-board posting? Sure. But what if she had found the quote without prompting? Would that somehow make this "trend" more believable or the story about it less bullshit? No. Trend pieces by way of anecdotes by way of color quotes are crap to begin with, because you could find anyone to say anything about anything at any time. (The blog One Person Trend Stories does a great job of pointing this out.)

In an article about the aftermath of the Michelle Delio fiasco at Wired—in which several of Delio's articles were called into question after many of her sources for color quotes could not be confirmed—Gelf called into question the use of such quotes in general, stating, "The quotes take time to gather, take up space that could otherwise be devoted to more-useful material, and are often a way for the writer to inject his or her opinion without directly stating it, by putting it in the mouth of someone else."

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