Sunday, October 23, 2005

Are there any standards for trend journalism?

I know this is an old complaint by media critics, but I'm continually amazed by the substance-free "trend" pieces in major newspapers and magazines.

I'm up early working this morning and while taking a break I read this ridiculous article in the New York Times: "For Some College Graduates, a Fanciful Detour (or Two) Before Their Careers Begin."

The thesis appears to be this:
Like a growing number of graduates, they are taking time away from school and the vigorous pursuit of a career. Some are looking for new experiences; others want to test potential careers or devote themselves to public service for a while; still others simply want to have a good time after the rigors of high school and college.


"Growing number" is of course a fudge phrase to indicate the author has no hard data to back up the piece besides some anecdotes. But the best part about the article is always the evidence buried in it that casts severe doubt on the thesis. Like this:

Students who take a timeout are still a minority of all graduates, career counselors said, and not every counselor said the number was expanding. At Ohio State, the proportion of graduates who opt for nontraditional alternatives is small and has remained fairly steady, said Martha M. Garland, the dean of undergraduate studies.


I also love that one of the three examples chosen in the lead to demonstate the thesis doesn't actually make the point at all once you read. Here is the description of him from the lede:

Steve Wiener has been crisscrossing the country in a large van, taking international tourists to see major cities and national parks.


But near the end, we find out some more info about Steve:

Mr. Wiener, who has been leading tour groups through the United States and Canada since June, has had a variety of experiences since graduating from U.C.L.A. in 2002 with a major in political science. He worked for a few months in Dublin and then spent two years as a corporate recruiter in Oakland and San Francisco, where he learned, he said, that the business world was not for him.


So it turns out Steve actually did start a career when he graduated. He just didn't like it. So now he's taking a break until he goes to graduate school. Which makes sense because graduate school generally starts in the fall and if you have 6 months or a year until then, it doesn't make much sense to get a career-oriented job. That's not a trend. It's common sense and I'm quite sure people did it in the 90s and 80s.

The one trend I would believe is that more people are putting off careers for a year to do service work (though perhaps I'm biased having taken a year off after college to do that myself). So if they had gotten data on how many people are doing AmeriCorps, growth of other service programs like Teach for America, any growth in the Peace Corps (though I don't think there has been any), etc, there might have been a story.

But then the New York Times doesn't even seem to understand what service is, given this graf from the story:

Other students, he said, are motivated by idealism to seek out community service programs. Kathy L. Sims, director of U.C.L.A's career center, said that every year about 60 new graduates of the university go to Japan to teach English for a year.


Travelling to Japan to earn a salary teaching tuition-paying students English is not service.

Author Alan Finder and his editors should be embarassed by this "article" that's actually just a waste of space.

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