New York Times Public Editor Will Scrutinize Fake Trends

New York Times Public Editor will scrutinize “fake trends”

January 30, 2011

In a rising cycle of alarming reports, the major and alternative news media regularly feature stories alleging unheard-of epidemics of bullying, “cyberbullying,” dating violence, mass pregnancies, “hooking up,” “sexting,” internet predation, depression, narcissism, dumbness, and similar ills among teenagers. When examined, these sensationalized crises turn out to be nothing new, hardly unique to youth, and often nothing at all. The epidemic of “fake trends” is outlined in a recent New York Times op-ed.

Strangely, the discovery of ever-new psychological and moral crises among youth parallels a wealth of solid social statistics showing plummeting crime, violence, suicide, violent death, early pregnancy, school dropout, and so on.Federal Bureau of Investigation reports and National Crime Victimization surveys show rape, sexual violence, anddating violence have plummeted among young people. Centers for Disease Control statistics find teens’ pregnancy,birth, abortion, and consistently measured sexually transmitted disease. What gives?

Recently, the New York Times’ Public Editor, responding to “numerous complaints from readers,” announced that his office would be “closely looking at these fake trend stories.” At issue was a complaint from YouthFacts alleging that a December 4, 2010, front-page story by staff writer Jan Hoffman alleging widespread “cyberbullying” among teenagers suffered “serious deficiencies with regard to basic accuracy, fundamental fairness to young people, and the journalistic standards The Times professes.”

“It does seem that more evidence could have been presented to substantiate the main points of Ms. Hoffman’s article,” Joseph Burgess of The Times Public Editor’s office replied. “…We receive numerous complaints from readers on a variety of stories like this, where readers assert that this is a fake trend that is not prevalent in the community at large. We are closely looking at these fake trend stories, and are in the process of building a file… This [story] seems like it would fit well into this category.” The Public Editor “will most likely be addressing this at some point in the future,” Burgess added.

Beyond the anecdotal nature of ever-rising “teen crises” manufactured from simple anecdotes and impressions (when have older generations not been negative toward youth?) lies “problem inflation.” Interests lend a scientific veneer to artificial trends by presenting deeply misleading surveys that drastically expand what constitutes a “problem.”

In recent surveys, for example, “bullying” can include not just chronic physical or psychological torment, but anyunwanted remark, glance, or even a rolled eye. Cyberbullying” can mean any online conflict or criticism. In fact, doing just about anything while ages 10 to 19 can be recast as a “teen crisis.”

Even feeling too good. Once-positive attributes such as self-esteem are being recast as troubling. Psychologist Jean Twenge gained widespread press attention for her claim, based on analyzing 70 years of largely incomparable pencil-and-paper tests, that America’s young suffer a “narcissism epidemic.” As detailed here, Twenge’s revised “narcissism” construct is meaningless, and her predictions of increased crime, aggression, exploitative sex, meanness, civic detachment, school dropout, and a host of other “destructive behaviors” have never materialized.

Similarly, alarms of hordes of teens coldly “hooking up” (having emotionless sex), “sexting” (texting pornographic photos and messages via cell phones), and terrorizing each other in burgeoning “teenage dating violence” abound. These are created by interest-groups’ surveys that inflate “hooking up” to include a mere email, kiss (see Institute for American Values), or just about “anything” (Unhooked author Laura Sessions Stepp) and receiving any “sexual words” (MTV/Associated Press survey) or “sexy messages” (National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy) by email or cell phone as “sexting.” Routine differences between couples such as criticizing clothes or saying anything disagreeable at all have been redefined by groups such as Liz Claiborne, Inc., the Teen Research Institute, and the widely-used Youth Dating Violence Survey as “dating violence.” Internet victimization and predation can mean providing any “personal information” or ever feeling “uncomfortable in any way” online.

Even statistics are routinely manipulated. For example, when births among teen women briefly rose from 2005 to 2007, sex education and “abstinence only” promoters rushed to blame each other and sexed-up “pop culture.” Neither side noted the inconvenient reality that teen births increased only among 18-19 year-olds, not the younger teens supposedly most affected by warring school curriculums and racy culture. No one had good explanations for why teen births dropped in 2008 and 2009 to the lowest levels since World War II, or why birth declines over the last 20 years among both teens and adults have occurred only among married couples—not the unwed ones most targeted.

Whether teens have more sex with each other and adult partners than their parents did 40 to 60 years ago, the best measures indicate young people today handle sex better. FBI reports and National Crime Victimization surveys (see above) show rape, sexual violence, and dating violence have plummeted among young people. National Center for Health Statistics and Alan Guttmacher Institute figures show teens’ pregnancy, birth, abortion, and consistently measured sexually transmitted disease rates today are much lower than in past generations.

Fake trends, inflated problems, and anecdotal panics hamper reasoned analysis of genuine troubles. Fifteen million American children and teens live in poverty (including seven million in utter destitution), radically boosting nearly every risk. A quarter million are confirmed victims of violent and sexual abuses every year, most inflicted by parents. Allowing contrived distractions to obscure the real crises millions of disadvantaged youth suffer is a big reason the United States displays the worst social and health problems of any other Western nation.


Mr. Males:

Thank you for writing and sharing your detailed concerns with us over Ms. Hoffman’s article. Just so you can understand, our office works outside the newsroom, so unfortunately we don’t have the ability to direct The Times to do a follow up on stories. We can make sure the appropriate person sees the concerns of readers, but that is the extent of which we are able to influence future coverage.

With regards to this story as a whole, it does seem that more evidence could have been presented to substantiate the main points of Ms. Hoffman’s article. Perhaps to your surprise, we receive numerous complaints from readers on a variety of stories like this, where readers assert that this is a fake trend that is not prevalent in the community at large. We are closely looking at these fake trend stories, and are in the process of building a file to store these in the event that Mr. Brisbane would like to tackle this in the future. This seems like it would fit well into this category, and we will be sure to keep it with the remainder.

I hope this is a suitable remedy to this problem. If you have other concerns in the future, please feel free to email us and we will gladly look into them for you.

Once again, thanks for writing and bringing your concerns to our attention. We appreciate hearing from you.

Best,

Joseph Burgess

Office of the Public Editor

The New York Times

public@nytimes.com

As an update from this email, we’ve continued to receive concerns from readers over the perceived fake trend stories that appear in The Times sporadically. Mr. Brisbane will most likely be addressing this at some point in the future, along with the questions raised in your original email as well… When Mr. Brisbane prepares to tackle this topic, we will certainly be sure to check out Youth Facts so we have a better understanding of some of these issues.


From: Michael Males

To: public@nytimes.com

Sent: Wednesday, December 08, 2010 9:20 AM

Subject: complaint about article

To: Arthur Brisbane, Public Editor

public@nytimes.com

212) 556-7652

Dear Mr. Brisbane,

This complaint concerns, “As Bullies Go Digital, Parents Play Catch-Up,” by Jan Hoffman (December 4, 2010, p. 1), at:http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/05/us/05bully.html?_r=1&pagewanted=all. I contend this story suffers from serious deficiencies with regard to basic accuracy, fundamental fairness to young people, and the journalistic standards The Times professes. This is the kind of story I expect from People or Fox, not the Times.

As a former University of California sociologist, author of numerous books, journal papers, and op-eds (including in The Times) on youth issues, media analyst, and current content director for YouthFacts.org, I believe news media consistently observe a substantially lower standard of ethics and accuracy in articles on young people than are applied to adult populations. In examining hundreds of news stories on teenagers, I continue to be astonished that if any other group–Jews, African Americans, Moslems, women, middle-agers, immigrants, any adult demography–were substituted wherever the words “adolescents,” “youth, “teenagers,” etc., appear and were subjected to the same the lax standards allowed for characterizing young people in typical news stories such as this one, the story would be seen as a grossly offensive exercise in bigotry. Whatever evidence the story cited would be seen as irrelevant.

But the problem goes further than that. Not only do stories on issues involving adolescents fail to incorporate the sensitivity barring prejudicial generalizations and inflammatory characterizations applied in stories involving race, gender, ethnicity, etc., they lack even basic evidence. In the digital bully story, rare anecdotes are cited as demonstrating larger, general menaces attributed to an entire young age group that are never documented with solid evidence. Some examples from the story:

“Desperate to protect their children, parents are floundering even as they scramble to catch up with the technological sophistication of the next generation.”

The dire tone of this article (“desperate,” “chilling,” “breathtaking,” “savage,” “horrified,” “shellshocked,”) is far more inflammatory than normal Times news-feature language, or even opinion pieces. Not only does the article fail to present evidence commensurate with its relentless alarmism, it presents virtually no objective documentation of its central theme that the “next generation” and “adolescents” as a class engage in the harsh forms of bullying cited in a few anecdotes and extrapolated as routine. The article presents no balancing contexts, such as pointing out that the best evidence available suggests that extreme cyberbullying is rare; that only a small fraction of adolescents, not an entire generation, perpetrate bullying of the kinds described in the article; and that adults, including parents, also bully.

“But online bullying can be more psychologically savage than schoolyard bullying. The Internet erases inhibitions, with adolescents often going further with slights online than in person.”

No evidence is presented for this statement, which is contradicted by fact that online statements are more easily traced to their sources than, say, verbal rumors. No evidence is cited as to why the reporter attributes these negative behaviors only to “adolescents.” I’ve repeatedly queried those presenting themselves as experts on bullying, and—like this story—none offer comparative or historical evidence that online bullying is worse than bullying done face-to-face (which can include physical violence), by telephone, or by verbal gossip or poison pens. The only relevant evidence they cite is from Dan Olweus’ research in Scandinavia, which finds the features attributed to modern bullying were uniformly present decades ago and with strikingly similar results.

“It’s not the swear words,” Inspector Brunault said. “They all swear. It’s how they gang up on one individual at a time. ‘Go cut yourself.’ Or ‘you are sooo ugly’ — but with 10 u’s, 10 g’s, 10 l’s, like they’re all screaming it at someone.”

No evidence is presented for this unchallenged quote, which uses terms like “they” and “all” to attribute negative behaviors to all “adolescents” (the referent from the previous sentence) as an undifferentiated class. Is there any other demographic group that could be characterized this hostilely? Would The Times present this quoted source uncritically if he made similarly disparaging comments about, say, women in general?

“The cavalier meanness can be chilling.”

No evidence is presented that meanness on the Internet by adolescents is more cavalier or chilling than meanness occurring elsewhere, or meanness by adults. For example, the Child Maltreatment report documents 240,000 cases of violent, sexual, and psychological abuses that meet criminal standards inflicted on children in 2008, overwhelmingly by parents—a toll that is certainly understated. Further, numerous studies find adolescent and adult bullies suffered histories of being abused as children, a point this story not only ignores but implies is a non-issue by presenting the parents and adults as innocent. I don’t see the emotional, self-righteous tone displayed in this story allowed in other Times articles, even ones reporting on violent abuses of children by parents.

“One afternoon last spring, Parry Aftab, a lawyer and expert on cyberbullying, addressed seventh graders at George Washington Middle School in Ridgewood, N.J. “How many of you have ever been cyberbullied?” she asked. The hands crept up, first a scattering, then a thicket. Of 150 students, 68 raised their hands. They came forward to offer rough tales from social networking sites, instant messaging and texting. Ms. Aftab stopped them at the 20th example.”

That some students feel that they have been “cyberbullied” in some way at some time is largely meaningless without details as to what is meant by bullying. Surveys on the subject use definitions that are so broad and vague that virtually any slight, even imagined and unintended ones, becomes bullying. (The working definition of bullying used in surveys is simply suffering “nasty and unpleasant things” or being “teased repeatedly in a way he or she doesn’t like” by others, which makes it surprising 100% of students don’t report being bullied.) Again, where is context? How many youths (especially if queried anonymously) would feel they had ever been bullied by grownups—including parents, teachers, coaches, etc., or in non-internet situations?

“This is a dark, vicious side of adolescence, enabled and magnified by technology. Yet because so many horrified parents are bewildered by the technology…”

Yet again, highly emotional statements by the reporter are presented without evidence that “adolescence” has any darker or more vicious side than any other age, or that parents constitute a legitimately innocent, bewildered, horrified class unable to comprehend the “savagery” of young people. Even reports documenting hundreds of thousands of violent and psychological abuses of children and teenagers inflicted by parents every year (as opposed to the isolated anecdotes in this story) have not led reporters, in any article I’ve seen, to posit a “dark, vicious side of grownups” or “chilling” “meanness” by “parents.” This article uncritically awards adults, including the reporter, the privilege of higher morality absent any critical balance, such as noting that adults also bully adolescents and each other and that media-anointed “experts” have personal interests in representing bullying as a widespread new scourge requiring their expertise and intervention.

“As bullying, or at least conflict, becomes more prevalent in the digital world…”

No evidence, not even a hint of evidence, is presented that bullying or conflict is becoming more prevalent in the digital world (“conflict”? Is any disagreement now being redefined as bullying? Notice how easily problem inflation occurs). If there are studies addressing this trend, the article does not cite them.

“Dr. Englander reminded parents that while children may be nimble with technology, they lack the maturity to understand its consequences.”

Another unchallenged quote, again deploying generalizing terms such as “children” and “they,” that is not backed by evidence of a general problem among “children” (a term conflating 3 year-olds and 17 year-olds) in understanding the consequences of internet technology use that is any worse than found among adults. Statements like these strike me as deserving of skepticism because they are self-serving, both in terms of promoting the speaker’s interests and in flattering adults as mature and benign.

“In a study last year of 312 freshmen at Bridgewater State University, Dr. Englander found that 75 percent reported that during a typical high school day they had used their cell phones for voice communication 30 percent of the time or less, preferring to use them for texting, sending photos and videos, and surfing the Internet. This is not a “phone,” Dr. Englander told the parents who looked, collectively, shellshocked. What you’ve given your child “is a mobile computer.””

Another example of problem inflation and unwarranted alarmism. No reason is presented as to why parents should be “collectively shellshocked” (the reporter’s characterization) at the fact that youths use cellphones for texting, sending photos, and internet access. Why is this shocking? Or even important?

“‘A lot of kids type things online that they would never dream of saying in person.’”

Another unchallenged quote founded in another unsupported claim followed by another ungrounded generalization that such behaviors are confined to “kids,” none of which are supported by evidence. Other sweeping articles declare that teenagers in general (especially girls) are openly mean to each other in ways adults allegedly are not. There seems to be no negative assertion about adolescents, no matter how extreme and baseless, that provokes reporter skepticism and challenge.

“No matter how parents see their children, learning of the cruelties they may perpetrate is jarring and can feel like an indictment of their child-rearing.”

The reporter expresses great concern about the feelings of parents, presented as completely blameless, alongside no actual investigation of the child-rearing by allegedly “jarred” parents’, even for the lone example provided. How do we know the child-rearing by parents of bullies was not deserving of indictment? Why is scholarly research linking bullying teenagers to histories of childhood maltreatment omitted from stories like this one?

“A recent study of teenagers and phones by the Pew Research Center Internet and American Life Project said that parents regard their children’s phones as a “parenting tool.” About two-thirds said they checked the content of their children’s phones (whether teenagers pre-emptively delete texts is a different matter). Two-thirds of the parents said they took away phones as punishment. Almost half said they used phones to check on their child’s whereabouts.”

This is just about the only kernel of general evidence cited in this lengthy article, and again, standard reporter skepticism is lacking. The Pew study cited is ambiguous in that it does not differentiate between a parent benignly looking up a needed number on their child’s cell phone or using the phone to rendezvous with their child, versus parents investigating suspected wrongdoing. Again, the reporter adopts, without evidence or investigation, the most hostile interpretations toward adolescents.

“Overburdened school administrators and, increasingly, police officers who unravel juvenile cybercrimes, say it is almost impossible for them to monitor regulations imposed on teenagers.”

The continuing theme of this unbalanced article is that innocent, shocked, mature, “overburdened” adults (epitomized by parents, officials, and experts) are pitted against vicious, bullying, techno-savvy, out-of-control “teenagers” in some kind of mass generational war. Yet again, the “hero-villain,” “us versus ‘them’” melodrama of this story lacks supporting evidence beyond the same kinds of indictment-by-anecdote and negative quips about teens the story elsewhere deplores when adolescents engage in them. Nor is any evidence offered for the assumption that teens need regulations.

This article not only fails to present research relevant to its basic allegation of innocent adults struggling to combat a horrifying, unheard-of eruption of adolescent viciousness and bullying enabled by youth-friendly cybertechnology, it presents no basic contexts at all for its larger implication that today’s teen world has become vastly more dangerous and parents more helpless. Yet again, the best, large-scale, long-term evidence reveals no general increases in teen distress or gaping divisions between parents and teens, commensurate with the panicked insinuations of crisis postulated by this article.

If you feel this complaint is valid, I would request first, that The Times balance this article with a follow-up article, this time citing valid evidence I contend will show that more serious bullying (excluding mere “conflict” or any treatment one “doesn’t like”) is perpetrated by a very small number of youths (not a “generation” or “all” of “them”), is nothing new, and is perpetrated by adults as well–including adults who bully adolescents. I expect a more scholarly, skeptical, iconoclastic approach from The Times.

Second, I would request that The Times enforce the same high standards of ethics, fairness, and accuracy for reporting on children, teenagers, and young adults that you would apply to reporting on race, gender, ethnicity, religion, etc. Can you imagine a Times article that attributes “chilling meanness” or a “dark, vicious side” to, say, African Americans or Jews or Muslims or women? What justifies exempting stories about young people from basic codes of fairness and accuracy?

I apologize if this sounds off-putting, but this story (and many others on youth issues) in my view violates numerous journalistic standards and constitutes another in the distinct genre of careless, prejudicial, emotional, anecdote-heavy, hostile-quip-dominated reporting reserved for stories on teenagers.

Thank you for your consideration and best regards,

Mike Males, Ph.D