Shoddy Journalism

I have an about-to-expire-and-I'm-not-renewing subscription to Men's Health. The two things that bug me the most about this magazine:

A) All the stupid stats. Stuff like (and I'm making this up as an example): studies have found that eating broccoli before noon decreases your chance of dying from a tooth infection 14%!

If you try hard enough, you can probably do a study that will create any stat you want. If you look hard enough, you can probably find a statistic that will support whatever you want to say. I guess it's a curse of our bullet-point world.

B) The Shoddy Journalism. You will probably roll your eyes at me, but Carol Van Valkenburg, my go-to journalism critic and U of MT professor, would roll over in her grave -- if she were dead -- at this stuff.

"The number of overdose deaths from prescription pain drugs has skyrocketed in Washington, just as it has across the United States. Based on evidence from death certificates in the state, Sabel says, men are more likely than women to combine a pain medication with an illicit drug such as cocaine—a sign of their willingness to experiment."

-- from "Dangerous Prescription Drugs"

In case you aren't as nit-picky as me, what bugs me there is how they toss in "just as it has across the United States" then "based on evidence" then "in [Washington] state". In less than two full sentences, they did a journalistic "switcharoo" and now they are using evidence gathered from death certificates in the state of Washington as a single fuchsia crayon in which to color a complex mural of the entire United States.

You see, this is Men's Health Magazine. It's aimed at men. So, they need to tie this to men. Whether prescription painkiller deaths are skyrocketing is not my point, it's how they say it's mostly men making dangerous experiments. And also, men are more willing to experiment.

Seriously? It might very well be, but the evidence didn't lead you there. Hell, the evidence didn't lead you anywhere! You threw out a little lazy research and made an unrelated claim! You with the fedora with the "Press" card in the bill, you frustrate me! Argh!

My contention isn't about whether prescription drug abuse is a problem. What I don't like is being fed information is such a shoddy fashion. I'm buying journalism because I don't have time to gather facts or to understand everything in this complicated world. I'm paying journalists to gather facts and tell me what is important. If they are skipping important steps, like trustworthy research, the credibility of the rest of the story is now in doubt. It is to me anyway.

The authors also explain why, in a related graphic, the Dakotas have few prescription painkiller deaths. It's because people are tougher there. They tough out pain instead of resorting to meds. I bet you do have to be tough to live in one of the Dakotas, but puh-leeeese, I seriously doubt some coal miner in Pennsylvania taking vicodin for a bad back isn't tough enough to live in Bismarck. Maybe at play is the Dakota's low population? Sigh.

So, A & B are really the same problem. In the case you can't find a stat -- or anecdote -- to support your contention, go ahead and pick out something that will support your contention and whip up a creatively worded sentence or two to do your work for you.

Buh, bye, Men's Health.


--- February 23rd, 2011 :: Misc ::