Why you’re better off being skeptical

About what you “read in the papers,” that is. You know that Newsweek story from 1986 that said single women over 40 were more likely to be killed by terrorists than find husbands?

It was bunk.

Here, via CJR Daily, is a quick recap of the original piece.

Newsweek’s cover was premised on a single demographic study on marriage patterns in America which included these “dire statistics”: “white, college-educated women born in the mid-’50s who are still single at 30 have only a 20 percent chance of marrying. By the age of 35 the odds drop to 5 percent. Forty-year-olds are more likely to be killed by a terrorist: they have a minuscule 2.6 percent probability of tying the knot” — figures which, Newsweek noted, were creating a “profound crisis of confidence among America’s growing ranks of single women.”

Here’s Newsweek’s mealy-mouthed retraction, 20 years later.

You know what? The 1986 Newsweek article includes all the elements that ought to make one instantly suspicious about a so-called news story– and no, I’m not even talking about the “single demographic study” bit. That’s too easy.

I’m talking about the combination of a hysterical cadence of direly regressive statistics and the assertion that the aforementioned statistics are causing terrible emotional duress–i.e., that they’re already exacting a measurable toll on peoples’ day to day lives.

It’s contemporary journalism’s equivalent of frenzy-inducing demagoguery. It doesn’t have to make sense. All it has to do is tap into some primal fear–fear of being alone, in this case–and ladle on a bunch of numbers that make it look like the reader is doomed.

But it gets worse. Here’s CJR Daily again:

How did that “terrorist” line come to pass? The magazine explains that it was “first hastily written as a funny aside in an internal reporting memo” by a Newsweek correspondent, then “inserted … into the story” by an editor on the opposite coast. Although this editor and her colleagues “thought it was clear the comparison was hyperbole … Most readers missed the joke.”

Not only was this a piss poor piece of journalism–they were flip about it.

Flip. As they launched a meme that, although subsequently debunked, remains widely believed.

Moral of the story: if it reads like hype, it is hype. Ignore it, for the sake of your own mental health.

[tags] newsweek, marriage crunch [/tags]

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  1. Pingback: KirstenMortensen.com » Blog Archive » Ignore what you read

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