Monday, February 12, 2007

Bad News

One of my soapboxes is sloppy journalism. Ostensibly, the purpose of "Congress shall make no law [...] abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press," is so that people can be informed. After all, if people are going to participate in government, they need to have access to a certain level of information, so that they are capable of making informed policy decisions, and base their voting behavior accordingly. And the press howls whenever they feel that they're being cut out of information that they feel is important. But what good is the freedom to disseminate information without government interference, if you can't be bothered to verify that they information is correct?

Late last month, the splashy random-news-trivia story of the day was the fact that the Census Bureau had released a report showing that 51% of women over the age of 15 were not living with a spouse. Here is a commentary on the New York Times piece that broke the story. (Despite all of the hoopla surrounding this story, news articles that deal with the survey directly are hard to find.) This referred to women who were unmarried, AND those who's spouses were elsewhere - serving in the military overseas, incarcerated or working on a fishing boat somwhere. In the less than three weeks since the story had become big news, the interpretation has changed, and now 51% of adult women are SINGLE, as reported in this Associated Press story on the rise of "Anti-Valentines Day."

While I suppose that there are people who don't make a distinction between a woman who currently doesn't have a husband, and one whose husband is working on an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico for six months, professional journalists shouldn't be in that category. Especially when the change in meaning leads people to question the accuracy and the agenda of the source material. Here conservative columnist Shaunti Feldhahn, acting on the misconception, takes aim at the New York Times, noting (correctly) that the idea that 51% of women are single is, in fact, false - and she goes on to attack marriage "naysayers" as disseminating false information. (It seems that she was following the lead of Michael Medved, who also attacked the article.)

To be fair, it turns out that it is warranted to attack, if not the accuracy, the overall relevance of the story. Even the New York Times (which reported it as a front-page story (subscription required)) itself isn't completely happy with the reporting. A more realistic look at the numbers, including only women aged 20 or older, brings the percentage down to 47 percent. (Note that the Census Bureau tracks marriage statistics starting at age 15 because this is a survey that they've been taking for decades, since when the average age of first marriage was significantly lower than it is now. At one time, the survey started at 14.) But 47% isn't newsworthy - 51%, with its implication of a new social paradigm amoung the majority of Americans, is. (By the way, you could make the point that since the average age of first marriage has climbed into the mid-twenties, even starting at age 20 may not be particularly warranted.)

So what we're left with is sloppy follow-on coverage of a story that was sloppily (and misleadingly) reported to begin with, because it created a splashier headline that way. Otherwise it would have been just another random bit of government trivia. Not that it doesn't point to a much greater social trend, over the long term. There WAS a time when a majority of women 15 and older were living with a spouse. But I suspect that most Americans today would be surprised to learn it extended into the 20th century. The idea that a noticable number of teenagers would be wives is something that makes most Americans think of the distant past, or some benighted third-world nation somewhere, where women are ranked as somewhat less valuable than goats or something, rather than the America of only a century ago. So some corners were cut to make the story worthy of attention. And while an entertaining public conversation was started, I don't think that you can say that it was useful - noone knew what they were talking about.

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