The New York Times’ public editor is chiding his paper for an article that made headlines a couple of weeks ago:
THE opening paragraph of the article sounded like grown-up stuff: “For what experts say is probably the first time, more American women are living without a husband than with one, according to a New York Times analysis of census results.”
It was a statistic that put the story on a fast track to the front page, providing a noteworthy benchmark for a well-established trend. But the new majority materialized only because The Times chose to use survey data that counted, as spouseless women, teenagers 15 through 17 — almost 90 percent of whom were living with their parents.
Major newspapers and broadcast and cable news programs picked up on this tipping point, spotted by Sam Roberts, a veteran Times reporter who writes frequently about census data. A few media outlets stopped to question the logic of including teenage females, before going on to discuss the Jan. 16 article’s interesting exploration of the “newfound freedom” for women that was reflected by the new majority.
Several readers, including some who perceived the article as an attack on family values, challenged the inclusion of 15-year-olds, in e-mails to me and in comments posted on the Web version of The Times. “The article is a little deceiving because it is based on the percentage of women 15 and older who are not married,” wrote one reader, noting that “it’s not even legal to marry at 15” in many states. I couldn’t agree more.
This truly is journalism at its worse — skewing statistics to invent a story.
This misleading article shouldn’t be shrugged off as a one-time anomoly. Similar types of manipulation occur every day newsrooms across the country.
For the record, The Times hasn’t admitted they did anything wrong yet. The public editor has no control over the newsroom. It’ll be interesting to see if this column is followed by a correction (or clarification, at least) from the news desk.