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Trash the Junk Trends

It seems that the New York Times story on elite college women choosing motherhood over careers has caused quite a stir. Jack Shafer reports in Slate that the piece has maintained a high position on the Times "most e-mailed stories" list, and has been linked to by multiple blogs –including this one, of course.

It’s really a shame that this story is getting so much attention. The question of how women juggle career and kids is an important one, worthy of objective and thoughtful reporting into how women handle the balancing act. Instead of talking about that meaningfully, though, we’re engaged in debate about a story that was based, for the most part, on froth.

Shafer reveals how the front page froth came to be. The e-mail survey that Louise Story relied on turns out to be something that she developed for her Columbia Journalism School master’s thesis. When she was told that her biased questionnaire didn’t pass social science muster, she re-did it, but in the analysis, kept some of the data from the original survey anyway.

The mind boggles. Shafer writes: "She concedes the survey wasn’t conducted with social-science rigor but calls it "a very good journalistic questionnaire." 

Well, I don’t know what that’s supposed to mean. While journalism and social science are not the same thing, journalism should not be thought of as "social-science research lite".  Of course, reporters ask biased and loaded questions every day, but they are really not considered "very good", at least not by me.

But hey, I don’t mean to criticize –or at least, not unconstructively. There are a few steps that should lead to solid cultural trends reporting, or at least, if followed, should avoid the wholesale botching of a story. Here are a few modest suggestions for avoiding the junk and writing a good cultural trends piece:

FIRST: Start with a question. Okay, I’ll even let you start with a theory. But don’t start out married to the point that you intend to make. If you’re more concerned with making an argument or making a splash, write an essay, an op-ed.

Do not skip this step!

Then:

  • Be extra careful if you’re writing about your own group. Writers often mine their own lives, and what you’ve observed in your own circles can be a very legitimate place to start an investigation of a story. (Note the word "start".) BUT, if you’re starting with something that’s happened to you and your four friends, or people who are just like you and your four friends, be sure to talk to people who are nothing like you and your four friends to make sure you’re not all just really weird. Or that you’re not coming to the story with odd assumptions. (Like, all Ivy League women will marry rich men. Or that Ivy League women are the only potential pool of female leaders in this country. Both of which must have been a comforting thoughts for Louise Story, an Ivy Leaguer. )
  • However you come about your story, talk to as wide a range of people possible.Think of how the Times story would have improved if Story had looked beyond elite colleges. Or even if she had made a particular effort to talk to students of differing economic backgrounds, races, majors. Or even if she’d looked at more than two schools. Maybe she would have found that students at non-elite colleges are chomping at the bit to kick career butt–and maybe she’d have concluded that tomorrow’s female leaders are unlikely to come from elite colleges, or over-privileged families or whatever. That would have been interesting.
  • Look for national data that could shed light on the issue that you’re exploring. It’s out there, on almost any topic imaginable. If you refuse to deal with numbers, please stop writing about cultural trends. You need no native numbers ability to manage this! I failed math three times in high school. You really only need to know how to calculate percentages, lasso a sixth grader for a refresher course, and how to look at a string of numbers and notice which ones are bigger and which ones are smaller.
  • Talk to people who have actually studied the issues you’re investigating. There are very few areas of cultural or social interest that haven’t been well hashed over in academia, or in the think tanks. Yes, you need to take into account said researchers biases, but you look dumb when you ignore what’s come before you, and such wonky types might save you from obvious blunders. (And many people have been studying the stay-at-home mom issue for many, many years.)

When you’ve done all this, here are the final non-negotiable steps: think, really think, about what you’ve found out and what it says. (Bonus points for seeking out people that will disagree with you and really hearing what they’re saying.) Then, tell the story that you’ve reported, whether it’s the one you hoped to tell or not.

We’ll all be the better for it.

By the way: I’ve been having an interesting e-mail exchange with an astute reader of this blog about what’s really going on with moms, career, kids, balance, expectations and equality. It’s led me to dig into the data a bit further than I did last week, and I’ve found the makings of a complicated, fascinating and very important story. I’ll report what I’ve found here soon. 

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3 thoughts on “Trash the Junk Trends

  1. Here is more about how the NYT story came to be: http://tinyurl.com/a29an .
    Thanks to Jack Shafer for sending it to me.

    My reaction: the story would have been a great front page story at the Yale Daily News. It’s an entirely inadequate approach to national story. First, why were none of the experts that she talked about quoted in the story? (Either she didn’t talk to them, or she didn’t like what they had to say.) Second, even if this had to be a story about women at elite colleges, to which I already noted my objection, I count nine Ivy League schools. So the story makes sweeping generalizations for all the thousands of those students based on 138 people at Yale. It’s been a few years since I was in college, but as I recall, Yale is pretty different from Cornell, Brown, Dartmouth etc.

  2. Ok now that I’ve caught up on all the reading here…but there are some really clever points above.

    Also a side note…the people Louise Story mentions as experts that she talked to are an interesting mix that must not have given her the time of day. Hewlitt is writing on this topic at this moment, why wouldn’t she have jumped on this one if there was something there for her? Goldin I don’t see in quite the same camp, but maybe I just don’t know as much about her. That said, there are tons of other social scientists out there doing this work.

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