Journalist tries to summarize 8% of teens not on social media

Most American teenagers use social media. So, how should a journalist go about finding about those who do not?

Such abstention from social media places him in a small minority in his peer group. According to a 2015 report by the Pew Research Center, 92% of American teenagers (ages 13-17) go online daily, including 24% who say they are on their devices “almost constantly.” Seventy-one percent use Facebook, half are on Instagram, and 41% are Snapchat users. And nearly three-quarters of teens use more than one social-networking site. A typical teen, according to Pew, has 145 Facebook friends and 150 Instagram followers…

Most of the social-media abstainers whom I interviewed aren’t technophobes. On the contrary, they have mobile phones that they use to contact their friends, usually via text. They are internet-savvy and fully enmeshed in popular culture. And they are familiar with social media. They just don’t like it…

For many nonusers of social media, the immediacy of face-to-face interaction trumps the filtered intimacy of Facebook and Instagram. “I do love seeing kids otherwise attached to their phones equalize when they’re cut off,” says Katy Kunkel of McLean, Va., whose four children range in age from 7 to 12. None of them are on social media. Especially during the summer months, she notes, “The kids recalibrate much quicker than adults. They find a tribe, then fun or trouble in trees and creeks…. They are way more active by default.”

The children themselves don’t often feel that they are missing out. Even though “almost 100%” of his friends are on social media, Brian O’Neill says that he can’t recall a time when something important happened in his social circle and he didn’t hear about it. “They let me know if something is going on,” he said. Ms. Furman’s experience is similar: “Sometimes I wouldn’t understand a specific joke everyone was telling, but 90% of the time, it’s not really worth it—it’s just a joke.”

Small subpopulations like this – the 8% of teenagers not using social media – can be attractive to journalists and social scientists alike: what causes them to go against the pervasive social norms? However, studying such small groups is often difficult. Large-scale surveys will not pick up many of them as there aren’t many to find.

This journalist went the route of interviews which can provide more detail but take more time. Still, how do you find such teenagers to interview when they are not easy to track down online? (Well, these teenagers might be active on other parts of the web without being on social media.) Perhaps a snowball sample was used or a quota sample. And, how many teenagers should you interview? The article quotes just several teenagers – perhaps more were interviewed – and tries to suggest that these quotes are representative of the 8% of teenagers not on social media.

Does this article correctly identify the reasons behind why a few teenagers are not using social media? It is hard to know but I’m not too hopeful based on a limited number of interviews with teenagers who may or may not represent those 8%. This may work for a journalist but I hope it wouldn’t pass academic muster.

Claim: Facebook wants to curate the news through an algorithm

Insiders have revealed how Facebook is selecting its trending news stories:

Launched in January 2014, Facebook’s trending news section occupies some of the most precious real estate in all of the internet, filling the top-right hand corner of the site with a list of topics people are talking about and links out to different news articles about them. The dozen or so journalists paid to run that section are contractors who work out of the basement of the company’s New York office…

The trending news section is run by people in their 20s and early 30s, most of whom graduated from Ivy League and private East Coast schools like Columbia University and NYU. They’ve previously worked at outlets like the New York Daily News, Bloomberg, MSNBC, and the Guardian. Some former curators have left Facebook for jobs at organizations including the New Yorker, Mashable, and Sky Sports.

According to former team members interviewed by Gizmodo, this small group has the power to choose what stories make it onto the trending bar and, more importantly, what news sites each topic links out to. “We choose what’s trending,” said one. “There was no real standard for measuring what qualified as news and what didn’t. It was up to the news curator to decide.”…

That said, many former employees suspect that Facebook’s eventual goal is to replace its human curators with a robotic one. The former curators Gizmodo interviewed started to feel like they were training a machine, one that would eventually take their jobs. Managers began referring to a “more streamlined process” in meetings. As one former contractor put it: “We felt like we were part of an experiment that, as the algorithm got better, there was a sense that at some point the humans would be replaced.”

The angle here seems to be that (1) the journalists who participated did not feel they were treated well and (2) journalists may not be part of the future process because an algorithm will take over. I don’t know about the first but is the second a major surprise? The trending news will still require content to be generated, presumably created by journalists and news sources all across the Internet. Do journalists want to retain the privilege to not just write the news but also to choose what gets reported? In other words, the gatekeeper role of journalism may slowly disappear if algorithms guide what people see.

Imagine the news algorithms that people might have available to them in the future: one that doesn’t report any violent crime (it is overreported anyway); one that only includes celebrity news (this might include politics, it might not); one that reports on all forms of government corruption; and so on. I’m guessing, however, Facebook’s algorithm would be proprietary and probably is trying to push people into certain behaviors (whether that is sharing more on their profiles or pursuing particular civic or political actions).

University press releases exaggerate scientific findings

A new study suggests exaggerations about scientific findings – for example, suggesting causation when a study only found correlation – start at the level of university press releases.

Yesterday Sumner and colleagues published some important research in the journal BMJ that found that a majority of exaggeration in health stories was traced not to the news outlet, but to the press release—the statement issued by the university’s publicity department…

The goal of a press release around a scientific study is to draw attention from the media, and that attention is supposed to be good for the university, and for the scientists who did the work. Ideally the endpoint of that press release would be the simple spread of seeds of knowledge and wisdom; but it’s about attention and prestige and, thereby, money. Major universities employ publicists who work full time to make scientific studies sound engaging and amazing. Those publicists email the press releases to people like me, asking me to cover the story because “my readers” will “love it.” And I want to write about health research and help people experience “love” for things. I do!

Across 668 news stories about health science, the Cardiff researchers compared the original academic papers to their news reports. They counted exaggeration and distortion as any instance of implying causation when there was only correlation, implying meaning to humans when the study was only in animals, or giving direct advice about health behavior that was not present in the study. They found evidence of exaggeration in 58 to 86 percent of stories when the press release contained similar exaggeration. When the press release was staid and made no such errors, the rates of exaggeration in the news stories dropped to between 10 and 18 percent…

Sumner and colleagues say they would not shift liability to press officers, but rather to academics. “Most press releases issued by universities are drafted in dialogue between scientists and press officers and are not released without the approval of scientists,” the researchers write, “and thus most of the responsibility for exaggeration must lie with the scientific authors.”

Scientific studies are often complex and probabilistic. It is difficult to model and predict complex natural and social phenomena and scientific studies often give our best estimate or interpretation of the data. But, science tends to steadily accumulate findings and knowledge more than a model where every single study definitively proves things. This can mean that individual studies contribute to the larger whole but often don’t set the agenda or have a radically new finding.

Yet, translating that understanding into something fit for public consumption is difficult. Academics are often criticized for dense and jargon-filled language so pieces for the general public have to be written differently. Academics want their findings to matter and colleges and universities like good publicity as well. Presenting limited or weaker findings doesn’t get as much attention.

All that said, there is an opportunity here to improve the reporting of scientific findings.

The trade-off of having insider access vs. passing along bad information

Several journalists are fighting over what boils down to this: can you have access to political insiders and still pass along correct information and/or critical analysis?

Is political science a rigorous field that journalists ought to tap when trying to understand and explain what’s happening in American politics? Will doing so imbue them with a structural understanding of events that’s superior to the armchair analysis provided by journalists and sources who overestimate their own expertise? Or are Washington, D.C., political journalists excessively beholden to so-called experts and their impenetrable jargon, people with no understanding of America beyond an insular bubble, whose track record of awful recommendations includes the Vietnam War, a conflict run by “the best and the brightest”?

Those are rough outlines of the positions taken by two high-profile journalists, Ezra Klein and Thomas Frank, during a much-discussed exchange on American political journalism. They’re actually arguing over a subset of the field that focuses on describing politics as it currently is. My typical focus has been on how Americans ought to govern themselves, rather than the depressing business of how they actually do govern themselves, so I’m commenting here as something of an outsider. In time, we “oughts” hope to persuade Americans to give Klein and Frank a less depressing status-quo to fight over. But there are so many people thwarting us.

Drawing on nine years in the nation’s capitol, Klein acknowledges one class of obstacles. “Washington is a cesspool of faux-experts who do bad research (or no research),” he explained, “but retain their standing by dint of affiliations, connections, or charisma.” Sweet validation! I’ve often suspected that official Washington is populated by enough disingenuous, misinformation-spreading hucksters to fill an underground container of organic waste. No one has better standing to render this judgment than Klein, whose earnest, tireless embrace of deep-in-the-weeds wonkery is unsurpassed in his generation. He wouldn’t assert a whole cesspool of intellectual waste product without having seen plenty of specific examples…

It’s such a wonderful quote: “Washington is a cesspool of faux-experts who do bad research (or no research), but retain their standing by dint of affiliations, connections, or charisma.” Kudos to Klein for saying what many insiders would never acknowledge. But if even powerful insiders who know that solidly enough to confidently declare it for publication won’t name names, the cesspool will never be drained.

A tough problem to overcome: insider access leads to scoops on information and comfy relationships. At the same time, the public might be better served by outsiders who aren’t so beholden to particular political figures or camps.

One solution could avoid having to drain the swamp of insiders by balancing insider and outsider perspectives. This is where the power of a news organization could come in. Let’s say the New York Times has reporters both with insider connections as well as people who can take the broad view. The newspaper could work to balance these accounts, not presenting one or the other as better as each other but combining them to give a more complete picture. This reminds me of the job of an ethnographer who seeks to balance the insider perspective (participating in the group/culture under study) but maintaining an outsider perspective (avoiding “going native” and retaining the ability to critically analyze the situation). It might be too much to ask this of any one journalist who has to find some way to get information but a media organization could help pull the pieces together.

See the bigger picture when reading media reports of new scientific findings

Think a new study touted by the media is too sensational? Take the long view of such reports, as sociologists and other researchers do:

One solution for reporters that hasn’t gotten a lot of attention yet, but should, is the value of talking to social scientists — historians of science and medicine, anthropologists, political scientists and sociologists of science– in the process of reporting about research. Experts in these disciplines who examine the practice of scientific and medical research from outside of it are in a great position to give reporters, and by extension their readers, insight into where new scientific knowledge came from, what sort of agenda might be motivating the people involved, the cultural meanings attached to particular scientific findings, what questions were being asked—and what questions weren’t asked, but should have been.

To see how, take a look at a story from earlier this week that nicely illustrates the value a social scientist can bring to how a science story is reported: Did you hear that hurricanes with feminine names are deadlier than ones with male names because people’s sexist bias causes them not to take female storms as seriously? As Ed Yong reported in National Geographic’s “Phenomena”, it’s probably not true. Yong talked to a social scientist who helped break down the reasons why – from weaknesses of the methods to the context of other factors already known to affect the deadliness of storms. Check out the reporting and ensuing discussion here…

“Almost every time one of these studies comes out, it’s promoted as evidence that ‘X single factor’ is a decisive culprit,” said Chloe Silverman, PhD, a sociologist and historian of science in Drexel’s Center for Science, Technology & Society, whose current project is focused on people’s approaches to understanding pollinator health. “But there’s plenty of evidence that a combination of factors contribute to honey bee health problems.”…

And journalists tend to follow particular narrative conventions, such as “the discovery just around the corner” or “the intractable mystery,” Silverman noted. “But social scientists who study science are in a better position than most to both identify those tendencies and offer more realistic descriptions of the pace and progress of scientific research.”

There is probably some irony here that Drexel’s media relations is pushing this point of view even as it is a helpful correction to the typical approach journalists take to the latest scientific findings. To be honest, it takes time in sociology and other fields to develop credible hypotheses, data, and theories. Researchers interact with other research to further their ideas and build upon the work that has already been done. Reaching consensus may take years or it may never completely happen.

I wonder how much social and natural scientists could do to better communicate the full scientific process. In a world that seems to be going faster, science still takes time.

Questioning the open kitchen

Lots of newer homes have kitchens open to great rooms or other gathering spaces. However, there are a few people questioning the trend:

J. Bryan Lowder, an assistant editor at Slate, recently slammed the open concept in a widely read article called “Close Your Open-Concept Kitchen.” He called the trend a “baneful scourge” that has spread through American homes like “black mold through a flooded basement.”

Lowder’s point, and one echoed through the anti-open-kitchen movement, is that we have walls and doors for a reason. While open-kitchen lovers champion the ease of multitasking cooking and entertainment and appreciate how the cook can keep an eye on the kids (or an eye on a favorite TV show), the haters reply that open kitchens do neither effectively. Instead, the detractors say, open kitchens leave guests with an eyeful of kitchen mess, distract cooks, and leave Mom and Dad with no place to hide from their noisy brood.

And apparently defenders of the open kitchen are quite vocal:

Roxanne, who blogs at Just Me With … under her first name only (and chose not to reveal her last name in this article for fear of backlash from open-kitchen devotees), ranted against the concept on her blog. For Roxanne, the open kitchen destroys coveted privacy.

Who knew this topic was so controversial. And how did we move from older homes with kitchens at the back of the house to the open kitchen of today?

Design psychologist Toby Israel, author of “Some Place Like Home: Using Design Psychology to Create Ideal Places,” said open kitchens have gained such momentum because the kitchen is often the heart of family existence and a central gathering point.

All interesting. But, another issue with this article: the headline suggests there is a backlash against this design but presents limited evidence of this. Sure, it quotes a few people who don’t like the open kitchen. And there is a citation of an odd statistic that just over 75% of home remodelers are knocking down walls. All of this indicates more of a discussion about open kitchens, rather than a big trend.

This is a common tactic today from journalists and others online: suggest there may be a trend, present limited evidence, and then leave it to readers to sort out at the end whether a big trend really exists. There are several ways around this. First, present more data. A few articles that start heated online discussions do not tell us much. In this case, tell us what builders are actually doing or what homes people are buying. Second, wait it out a bit. Having more time tends to reveal whether there is really a trend or just a minor blip. While this doesn’t help meet regular deadlines, it does mean that we can be more certain that there is a discernible pattern.

Sports writer reviews new book “A Dreadful Deceit: The Myth of Race from the Colonial Era to Obama’s America”

Not too many football columns include a book review of a new book on the social construction of race:

This emerging theory is reflected in a book about to be released, “A Dreadful Deceit: The Myth of Race from the Colonial Era to Obama’s America,” by Jacqueline Jones, a highly regarded University of Texas historian. Your columnist just finished an advance copy, and was impressed — the volume may have a lasting impact on American thought.

Jones persuasively argues that the wealthy and powerful of previous centuries were obsessed with holding back the poor. Pretending blacks represent a different “race” than whites created an excuse, she contends, for the well-off to mistreat blacks; and also a lever to prevent poor blacks and poor whites from joining in common cause. Whites “fashioned their own identity by contrasting themselves to blacks,” Jones writes, ingraining the concept that skin color is somehow fundamentally different from all the other cosmetic distinctions among persons, then using the biases to prevent blacks from achieving the education and economic power that would disprove racial assumptions.

“A Dreadful Deceit” is one of those books that may succeed more because it coincides with developments in public thought, than because of being a great work. Jones employs the “storytelling” structure that is all the rage in academia, which posits that because minorities and women of the past were marginalized, they can be understood only through their personal narratives. This may be true; the trouble is that for every personal narrative of oppression, there is a personal narrative of someone who was not mistreated. Grand themes of history, one of which Jones claims to have discovered, need more than anecdotes, however compelling. Jones also comes perilously close to contending, “Race is an imaginary concept for which the white race should be blamed.”…

Such faults aside, “A Dreadful Deceit” may put into the national conversation the notion that categorizing by “race” is an obsolescent idea. Skin color tells nothing more about a person than eye color; there is simply one human race. That is a powerful, progressive idea.

Sounds like an interesting book. However, I wonder if it could be used to justify a color blind view: if everyone is more or less the same genetically, why talk about race at all? Even if race is socially constructed, it continues to have real ramifications.

On a separate note, I must say I enjoy sports writers who can also converse intelligently about a broad range of academic topics. Gregg Easterbrook does this quite well but most do not. Bill Simmons has too much pop culture and often acts like he wants to be viewed as smart rather than actually is learned. The typical big-city newspaper columnist will often make reference to social issues but does so in a ham-handed way. Think Rick Reilly who often uses personal narratives to try to make a bigger point. Too often, sports writers acts like sports are the main things that matter – and the rest of life supports it.

Focus less on how all of Manhattan’s 120,000 blocks can be walked and spend more time with the sociological findings

A sociologist who has walked every block of Manhattan shares what he learned in a new book:

The result is his new book, The New York Nobody Knows: Walking 6,000 Miles in the City. The expansive sociological study relies on Helmreich’s on-the-ground research, culled from thousands of hours of observation and casual conversations with local residents, to help parse hot-button issues like immigration, assimilation, and gentrification. But more than that, the miles and miles clocked – he wore out nine pairs of shoes in his trek across the city – come through as a sort of extensive love letter to the frenetic energy and diversity of New York…

For non-New Yorkers, the time the book spends on the outer boroughs is a fairly obvious corrective for what Helmreich sees as the tourism-generated, Manhattan-centric view of New York. And for all its diversity – the book spends hundreds of pages on the immigrant communities of the city – New York comes off as an inextricably linked web of groups that constantly must interact, change, and adjust. “It’s almost as if you dropped a hundred towns in Nebraska into the middle of the city,” Helmreich says. But what sets New York apart, he adds, is that “there’s this duality to New York that you can be in these places, but you can also be in the city.” Even those who live in more isolated pockets, such as the waterfront community of Edgewater Park in the Bronx, have a sense of connectedness…

By necessity, given the size of the city, Helmreich calls his book no more than a much-needed “introductory work” to the diversity of New York City. His method is, in some ways, a throw back to a much earlier form of social criticism, when walking was curiously in vogue for the self-styled intellectuals and elites of 19th century Europe. Think of Charles Dickens’s night walks through London or the well-dressed flâneurs of Paris. And it’s one that anyone can learn from. “If I accomplish anything besides sociology,” Helmreich says, “it’s to encourage people to walk through what I call the greatest museum in the world.”

Interesting findings that could suggest how disparate communities within a larger community understand their place in the whole. Additionally, there is a lot of potential here to detail the New York that most of its residents know, not the big money Wall Street/hedge fund world or the celebrity/glamorous crowd.

However, this article goes more for the human interest angle than the actual findings of the book. While it may be interesting to detail how a single person was able to walk the whole city, it may not mean much if they weren’t very observant or didn’t find much of interest. Rather then calling this an “epic quest,” how about thinking through what this methodology leads to compared to traditional ethnographic work that calls for spending extended time with a more limited group of people? How does this compare with other studies of American streets, such as the work of Jane Jacobs looking at places like Greenwich Village and Rittenhouse Square (Philadelphia), Elijah Anderson examining street life in poor Philadelphia neighborhoods, or Mitchell Duneier analyzing how black street vendors utilize public sidewalk space in New York City? Even as New York City gets a lot of attention, this seems like a lost opportunity to highlight how a sociologist (versus a journalist or a reality TV show or an academic from another discipline) views the street-level operation of the world’s #1 global city.

Is the media narrative that bullying directly leads to suicide a social construction?

A member of the Poynter Institute argues the media narrative that bullying leads to suicide is too simple:

The common narrative goes like this: Mean kids, usually the most popular and powerful, single out and relentlessly bully a socially weaker classmate in a systemic and calculated way, which then drives the victim into a darkness where he or she sees no alternative other than committing suicide.

And yet experts – those who study suicide, teen behavior and the dynamics of cyber interactions of teens – all say that the facts are rarely that simple. And by repeating this inaccurate story over and over, journalists are harming the public’s ability to understand the dynamics of both bullying and suicide…

Yet when journalists (and law enforcement, talking heads and politicians) imply that teenage suicides are directly caused by bullying, we reinforce a false narrative that has no scientific support. In doing so, we miss opportunities to educate the public about the things we could be doing to reduce both bullying and suicide…

It is journalistically irresponsible to claim that bullying leads to suicide. Even in specific cases where a teenager or child was bullied and subsequently commits suicide, it’s not accurate to imply the bullying was the direct and sole cause behind the suicide.

I don’t know this literature too well outside of reading some work by Michael Kimmel on gender and bullying and Katherine Newman et al. regarding school shootings. Some thoughts:

1. Bullying is not a good thing, even if it doesn’t lead to tragic outcomes.

2. Even if a majority of kids who are bullied don’t commit suicide, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a relationship. It might be that under certain conditions (perhaps social and environmental conditions or perhaps it has to do with more individual physiological traits) this relationship is more likely.

3. It seems that the media does not generally do very well in conveying complex stories. Perhaps it is because they don’t lend themselves to soundbites and headlines. Perhaps it is the need to find the winners, just like on ESPN. Perhaps the audience doesn’t want a complex story. But, look at any of the major events of recent years that have drawn a lot of media attention – from invading Iraq to Hurricane Katrina to the Trayvon Martin case – and you see relatively simple narratives for incredibly complex situations. Context matters.

As researchers look more at this issue, this is a reminder that the public perceptions of tragic events matter.

h/t Instapundit

Journalists: stop saying scientists “proved” something in studies

One comment after a story about a new study on innovation in American films over time reminds journalists that scientists do not “prove” things in studies.

The front page title is “Scientist Proves…”

I’m willing to bet the scientist said no such thing. Rather it was probably more along the lines of “the data gives an indication that…”

Terms in science have pretty specific meanings that differ from our day-to-day usage. “Prove” and “theory, among others, are such terms. Indeed, science tends to avoid “prove” or “proof.” To quote another article “Proof, then, is solely the realm of logic and mathematics (and whiskey).”

[end pedantry]

To go further, using the language of proof/prove tends to relay a particular meaning to the public: the scientist has shown without a doubt and that in 100% of cases that a causal relationship exists. This is not how science, natural or social, works. We tend to say outcomes are more or less likely. There can also be relationships that are not causal – correlation without causation is a common example. Similarly, a relationship can still be true even if it doesn’t apply to all or even most cases. When teaching statistics and research methods, I try to remind my students of this. Early on, I suggest we are into “proving” things but rather looking for relationships between things using methods, quantitative or qualitative, that still have some measure of error built-in. If we can’t have 100% proof, that doesn’t mean science is dead – it just means that done correctly, we can be more confident about our observations.

See an earlier post regarding how Internet commentors often fall into similar traps when responding to scientific studies.