"Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored." -Aldous Huxley

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wMonday, November 21, 2005

KEEPING UP WITH THE JONESES? PROVE IT: This piece grew out of a false start in one of the chapters for my book. Never got around to placing it anywhere but I though readers might enjoy. So, here it is:

Trending Downward

The trend story has become a staple of modern journalism. Reporters use anecdotes together with the opinions of experts and what data are available to track change across society. The point is to announce a new "trend." These stories tell us about new diets that are sweeping the nation ("Eat Fat, Lose Weight"), the latest drug scares ("Glue Is the New Crack"), employment and investment fads ("Gen-Xers Work Less, Save Less"), political movements ("The Aging Youth Vote"), and shifts in religion or social mores.

Trend stories are often mocked because they lack scientific rigor. To many critics, they seem more like bad creative writing than insightful journalism. Slate media columnist Jack Shafer routinely holds such articles up to ridicule. "Bogus trend stories," he explained, "combine low-budget sociology, cheap thinking, sweeping generalizations, available anecdotes, and audience pandering to fatten readers with idiocy." So: lock and load.

What prompted those particular remarks by Shafer was the publication the other week of an article in the financial section of USA Today. The piece tried to grasp at the expectations and career ambitions of young workers that are part of the demographic group labeled Generation Y. It argued that those expectations are likely to reshape the workplace to allow much greater flexibility in hours, dress, and location.

Now, there were two different ways that one could have read the piece. You could do what Shafer did and complain about the generational clich├ęs and overgeneralizations that author Stephanie Armour employed to fill out a large canvass (USA Today: "[N]early half of employers say that younger employees are dismissive of their older co-workers." Shafer: "What rising generation didn't hate the previous generation?"). Or you could read it as I suspect many people read trend stories, as food for thought, something that is worth pondering but not necessarily authoritative.

Me? I pity the poor trend writers. It isn't easy to interpret the decisions of millions of people in a way that is both timely and not open to serious challenge. On balance, I'd rather live in a world with trend stories than in a world in which us lowly journalists were too afraid to try to wrestle a slippery truth to the ground.

And of course some trends are more open to verification than others. Proving that more parents are successfully feeding their children broccoli these days is difficult, but it could probably be done. You could look at demographics and broccoli sales over a long period, and survey a large but random sampling of parents about their children's eating habits. You'd have pretty good proof of a trend, if one existed.

On the other hand, take adultery. Could you gauge how often it actually occurs? People are not above lying to pollsters or even to fudging answers on survey questionnaires, and the fear and guilt that are built into the topic are incentives to be less than forthcoming. Any counts of the incidence of adultery are likely massive undercounts.

Reporters often have to use some guesswork to fill in the gaps. They string anecdotes together with inconclusive evidence and the testimony of people who know something about the subject, and then they take their best guess (i.e., "Mother's Little Helper," "The New Monogamy") and make the case for why that is plausible. Occasionally, this process yields up valuable new insights. Failing that, trend stories often amuse. They've survived in spite of heavy criticism because readers are interested in how things change.

posted by Jeremy at 7:17 PM