Case Study: Trend Stories

Is there a trend in trend stories?

Yes. They’re usually bogus.

Not every trend story illustrates a fictitious trend, but many do.

Usually, journalists go awry in one of three ways when writing about trends.

First, the numbers could be inaccurate – meaning that even if the journalist’s calculations are correct, the data is not and the results yield an incorrect assertion. For example, the FBI’s rule of 50,000. If your story is based on the assumption that 50,000 of X are involved when really there’s only 300, it would be easy to see how a false trend might be perceived.

Second, journalists do the math incorrectly. Everybody knows journalists were business students who couldn’t do math (I joke). But seriously, incorrectly calculating percentages or averages can skew results. If you’re not sure how to correctly calculate something, consult with someone or something to make sure you do it correctly. This also means fairly compare the numbers to those from other time periods before proclaiming something as a “new trend.”

Third, journalists confuse correlation with causation. This can be easy to do. However, just because the numbers correlate to a streak, doesn’t mean they’re the cause of a trend.

For example, a baseball player with a batting average of .250 has eight hits in his last 10 at-bats. This would equate to a batting average of .800 not withstanding other factors. While the player could have improved that much, it is more likely that it’s just a streak, not a trend. Streaks are natural. It’s unlikely that the player with a .250 batting average would hit the ball on the first at-bat, strike out the next three, and return to get a hit on the fifth as his average would suggest. Rather, he goes eight for 10, then slumps on the next 20 at-bats and his average is still around .250.

Yet, there will be plenty of sports writers attempting to explain this “trend” after the first 10 at-bats.

So focus when analyzing potential trends. Professors often say, “Always do the math.” But, I’d say, “Always do the math correctly.”

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One response to “Case Study: Trend Stories

  1. Pingback: Journalism: keeping it real since circa, a long time ago « Warren Tillery's Blog

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