Most millennials want to buy a home but we keep finding ones who don’t want to

Here is a recent story that both includes survey data that most millennials want to purchase a home yet leads with one who does not want to do this:

Niederkorn, a member of the millennial generation, currently lives with his parents but said he plans to be a renter for life and never buy a home. He craves the ability to pack up and go, he said, and doesn’t want to be saddled with a home loan, property taxes or homeowners associations fees. And though this may put him in the minority — an Apartment List survey of about 24,000 renters nationwide released in May found that 80 percent of millennial renters want to buy a house or condo sometime in the future — it does raise some interesting questions about the American Dream and the place of homeownership within it.

The historical overview of homeownership that follows is helpful but it is a weird premise: the cited data suggests there is a clear pattern but there is this one suburban guy who is going another direction. Do we follow the data or the single story?

On a related note, journalists are fascinated with millennials and what they may or not do, including buying a home. When I see such stories, I wonder if this is masking three different purposes:

  1. This is just another way to suggest there is a trend (journalists are always looking for trends).
  2. Journalists really hope millennials usher in major changes to American society.
  3. Younger journalists often live in big cities and want other millennials to affirm their choices.

Homeownership and suburban living is a hot topic in this area: will millennials follow their parents to the cookie-cutter suburbs and live boring lives? (There is often an evaluation of the suburbs included in the story.) I haven’t seen many articles where the conclusion is that many or most millennials will end up in the suburbs.

Facebook as the new gatekeeper of journalism

Facebook’s algorithms now go a long way in dictating what news users see:

“We try to explicitly view ourselves as not editors,” he said. “We don’t want to have editorial judgment over the content that’s in your feed. You’ve made your friends, you’ve connected to the pages that you want to connect to and you’re the best decider for the things that you care about.”…

Roughly once a week, he and his team of about 16 adjust the complex computer code that decides what to show a user when he or she first logs on to Facebook. The code is based on “thousands and thousands” of metrics, Mr. Marra said, including what device a user is on, how many comments or likes a story has received and how long readers spend on an article…

If Facebook’s algorithm smiles on a publisher, the rewards, in terms of traffic, can be enormous. If Mr. Marra and his team decide that users do not enjoy certain things, such as teaser headlines that lure readers to click through to get all the information, it can mean ruin. When Facebook made changes to its algorithm in December 2013 to emphasize higher-quality content, several so-called viral sites that had thrived there, including Upworthy, Distractify and Elite Daily, saw large declines in their traffic.

Facebook executives frame the company’s relationship with publishers as mutually beneficial: when publishers promote their content on Facebook, its users have more engaging material to read, and the publishers get increased traffic driven to their sites. Numerous publications, including The New York Times, have met with Facebook officials to discuss how to improve their referral traffic.

Is Facebook a better gatekeeper than news outlets, editors, and the large corporations that often run them? I see three key differences:

1. Facebook’s methods are based on social networks and what your friends and others in your feed like. This may be not too much different than checking sites yourselves – especially since people often go to the same sites or go to ones that end to agree with them – but the results are out of your hands.

2. Ultimately, Facebook wants to connect you to other people using news, not necessarily give you news for other purposes like being an informed citizen or spurring you to action. This is a different process than seeking out news sites that primarily produce news (even if that is now often a lot of celebrity or entertainment info).

3. The news is interspersed with new pieces of information about the lives of others. This likely catches people’s attention and doesn’t provide an overwhelming amount of news or information that is abstracted from the user/reader.

Errors committed by surgeons, plagiarism, and disciplinary errors

Megan McArdle highlights the work of a sociologist who studied the categories of errors made by surgeons and then connects those findings to plagiarism in journalism:

For my book on failure, I thought a lot about what constitutes failure. One of the most interesting interviews I did was with Charles Bosk, a sociologist who has spent his career studying medical errors. Bosk did his first work with surgical residents, and his book divides the errors into different categories: technical errors (failures of skill or knowledge), judgment errors (failing to make the right decision in a difficult case), and normative errors. The last category includes not being prepared to discuss every facet of your patient’s case, and interestingly, trying to cover up one of the other kinds of error.

Surgeons, he said, view the first two kinds of errors as acceptable, indeed inevitable, during residency. You learn to do surgery by doing surgery, and in the early days, you’re going to make some mistakes. Of course, if you just can’t seem to acquire the manual skills needed to do surgery, then you may have to leave the program for another branch of medicine, but some level of technical and judgment error is expected from everyone. Normative error is different; it immediately raises the suspicion that you shouldn’t be a surgeon…

Plagiarism might actually fall into Bosk’s fourth category of error, the one I find most interesting: quasi-normative error. That’s when a resident does something that might be acceptable under the supervision of a different attending physician, but is forbidden by the attending physician he reports to. In the program he studied, if your attending physician did a procedure one way, that’s the way you had to do it, even if you thought some other surgeon’s way was better.

In other words, quasi-normative error is contextual. So with plagiarism. In college and in journalism, it’s absolutely wrong, because “don’t plagiarize” is — for good reason — in your job description. In most of the rest of corporate America, lifting copy from somewhere else might be illegal if the material is copyrighted, but in many situations, maybe even most situations, no one, including the folks from whom you are lifting the copy, will care. They certainly won’t care if you “self-plagiarize” (as Jonah Lehrer was also accused of doing), and I’m very thankful for that, because I wrote a lot of proposals for my company, and there are only so many original ways to describe a computer network. Yet I’d never copy and paste my own writing for Bloomberg without a link, a block quote and attribution.

All errors are not created equal yet I suspect all professional and academic fields could come up with similar lists. The third and fourth types of errors above seemed to be related to professional boundaries; how exactly are surgeons supposed to act, whether when in surgery or not? The first two are more linked to surgery themselves: could you make the right decision and execute the decision? Somewhat frustratingly, some of the same language might be used across fields yet be defined differently. Plagiarism in journalism will look different than it does it academic settings where the practice McArdle describes of “re-researching” a story and not making any attributions to the original researcher would not be good in a peer-reviewed article.

Determining whether “Boston Strong” has run its course requires more than a few interviews

The “Boston Strong” motto has been ever-present again this week – and one journalist suggests some Boston residents want to move on.

Inventory manager Make Nash, a resident of Boston’s Jamaica Plain neighborhood, is among those who have heard enough of the rallying cry.“Forget ‘Boston Strong.’ Be strong!” he says…

Freelance journalist R. Brock Olson disputed the idea that a hashtag slogan can hold the capacity to heal in a post titled “We are not #BostonStrong” on his “View From Boston” blog this week, which was republished on Salon on Friday.

“The #BostonStrong meme betrays our insecurities. If we were strong, we would not need to remind ourselves,” he wrote.

Two instances of people who want to move on from the slogan. At the least, the article might suggest there is disagreement about how long the term should be used. Yet, the article provides little evidence either way that these are sentiments held by a lot of residents or just a few.

This is a good example of the difference in approach by journalists and sociologists. While there may be some signs of discussion in Boston – and it is hard to know this without being there – sociologists would tend to want more evidence. How about a survey in the metropolitan region about the term “Boston Strong”? Couldn’t such a question be included in a survey about how residents feel about the bombings, whether they feel safer today, and whether there is still a sense of solidarity in the region? Or, if a survey with a representative sample of the region isn’t preferred, how about more interviews rather than a few for or against the motto?

Ethnography = reporting = paying attention, right?

A look at psychologist Sherry Turkle’s latest study and promotion of normal conversation includes an interesting description of ethnography:

Turkle is at work on a new book, aspirationally titled Reclaiming Conversation, which will be a continuation of her thinking in Alone Together. In it, she will out herself again, this time as “a partisan of conversation.” Her research for the book has involved hours upon hours of talking with people about conversation as well as eavesdropping on conversations: the kind of low-grade spying that in academia is known as “ethnography,” that in journalism is known as “reporting,” and that everywhere else is known as “paying attention.”

Considering Turkle’s years of studying human interaction with machines and technology (including the fascinating book Alone Together), I suspect she would not describe ethnography this way. But, it is not hard to find similar descriptions of ethnography. Isn’t it just observation and paying attention? Not quite. Journalists tend to equate ethnography with good reporting but this is not the case. Here are some key differences:

1. Ethnography does not involve intentionally interviewing key informants in a story. It involves much more discussion, observation, and time.

2. Ethnography is sometimes known as participant observation. Ethnographers don’t just interview; they often participate with the people or groups they are studying so they can get an insider view (key: while still retaining their outside, analytical perspective).

3. There is a rigorous process to ethnography that typically involves months of participant observation, copious note taking (both on the spot as well at the end of each day – I’ve seen recommendations for 2-3 hours of note-taking for each 1 hour in the field), returning from the field and coding and analyzing the notes, writing a study that interacts with and adds to existing theories.

4. This is not just “low-grade spying.” Ethnography is often an intense, draining experience that involves a lot of human interaction.

In other words, ethnography is not just about showing up and eavesdropping. Some people may be pretty good at this but this does not automatically make a good study. This, in my mind, is often the difference between academic and journalistic approaches to topics and social issues: the methodology employed by journalists tends to be scattered and there is little discussion of the trade-offs involved in their methodological choices.

Reminder to journalists: a blog post garnering 110 comments doesn’t say much about social trends

In reading a book this weekend (a review to come later this week), I ran across a common tactic used by journalists: looking at the popularity of websites as evidence of a growing social trend. This particular book quoted a blog post and then said “The post got 110 comments.”

The problem is that this figure doesn’t really tell us much about anything.

1. These days, 110 comments on an Internet story is nothing. Controversial articles on major news websites regularly garner hundreds, if not thousands, of comments.

2. We don’t know who exactly was commenting on the story. Were these people who already agreed with what the author was writing? Was it friends and family?

In the end, citing these comments runs into the same problems that face web surveys done poorly: we don’t know whether they are representative of Americans as a whole or not. That doesn’t mean blogs and comments can’t be cited at all but we need to be very careful of what these sites tell us, what we can know from the comments, and who exactly they represent. A random sample of blog posts might help as would a more long-term study of responses to news articles and blog posts. But, simply saying that something is an important issue because a bunch of people were moved enough to comment online may not mean much of anything.

Thankfully, the author didn’t use this number of blog comments as their only source of evidence; it was part of a larger story with more conclusive data. However, it might simply be better to quote a blog post like this as an example of what is out on the Internet rather than try to follow it with some “hard” numbers.

Combining sociology and journalism

The efforts of a hyper-local journalism website in Alhambra, California illustrate an intriguing combination: journalism plus sociology.

This fixation on community interaction is part of the site’s DNA. As city newspapers inexorably decline, a smattering of new “hyperlocal” news outlets have sprung up, from Aol’s Patch network to bootstrap start-ups. But the Source has an unusual ingredient: more than a decade of research by University of Southern California communications expert Sandra Ball-Rokeach and her team…

Ball-Rokeach studies what she calls “communication ecologies”—the web of ways in which different communities get and spread information, from Facebook to the grocery-store bulletin board, from the local tabloid to chatting with neighbors. She’s found that these networks can differ dramatically from community to community, ethnic group to ethnic group…

Understanding those differences is crucial for anyone, be they advertisers or political parties, trying to reach specific communities. Ball-Rokeach believes it’s also important for civic engagement. Strong cities with plugged-in citizens tend to have dense “neighborhood storytelling networks”—crisscrossing lines of media outlets, community groups, and other institutions that hold a running conversation about what it means to live there…

Instead of simply sketching out the usual beats—city council, business, sports—they sent out a team of USC researchers who interviewed and held focus groups with residents in all three local languages. Their exploration showed that residents wanted to know more about education, local businesses, dining and entertainment deals, crime, and traffic and parking. “Many of them just said, ‘We don’t know what’s happening in Alhambra,’” says Ball-Rokeach…

Still, even if the Alhambra Source goes the same way, there’s an intriguing idea in this relationship between newspaper and university. What could embattled major dailies from The Boston Globe to the Los Angeles Times learn about their readers by teaming with sociology grad students? Tailoring a news outlet to reflect its community might not always produce the most in-depth journalism—but it might at least help the news business survive.

It sounds like what sociology and social science bring to the table in this combination is the ability to collect and analyze data. However, it still sounds like this social science research is more about marketing or targeting an audience than anything else. In an era of difficulty for newspapers and other news sources, this is not to be underestimated. But, this still puts the social science in more of a marketing role: what do we need to address in order to attract readers? At the same time, I could envision a stronger combination of these two disciplines where the journalism is much more informed and shaped by research and data rather than anecdotes and single cases and the sociologists then have another outlet to share their findings and explanations about the social world.