Friday, August 29, 2008

And this is worth 50 cents ... why again?

Before we get to the main course, let's take a moment to salute the intrepid copyeds at Trade and Tryon for getting first- person pronouns in three out of four frontpage heds.* (The fourth -- "Facebook founder 'friends' Obama" -- is such a solid favorite for the Cancer Cured/Mideast At Peace Prize that it's hardly fair to let it compete with mere pronouns.)

But it's a particular hed:

We love our
junk food
Charlotte area ranks 5th in filling
grocery carts with yummy stuff

... and the story beneath it, and the sort of thinking that ranked the whole thing right up there with "Facebook founder 'friends' Obama," that we need to worry about.

Broadly, there are two ways of approaching this. One is the Good Science vs. Bad Science approach. And let's not hear any protests that you aren't playing science here -- either you're proclaiming that you have a valid and reliable measure of how much metropolitan areas love their junk food (and that a difference of half a percentage point in that measure is significant), or one-fourth of your frontpage stories are made up. Which is it?

Glad you agree, but that means we get to ask some questions. Tell us a little more about your conceptual and operational definitions there:

On a list of the 10 U.S. cities where people spend the most amount of their yearly grocery bill on unhealthy food, Charlotte is No. 5. (So does "unhealthy" mean "junk" or "yummy stuff"?)

A study of product purchases found that in the Charlotte metro area – defined as Charlotte-Gastonia-Concord – we spend 10.9 percent of our annual food dollars in the unhealthy category.

OK, so the concept is the proportion of "yearly grocery bill" (or "annual food dollars," which ain't the same thing) spent on "unhealthy" food. And we measure that how?

That would be things like cake and brownie mixes, cookies, candies, frozen pizza, full-fat mayonnaise, chips and salty snacks, soft drinks, ice cream, bacon and sausage. (Hate to be rude here, but -- you pick up some butter, milk and eggs and we'll play Spoonbread of Mass Destruction with just the stuff that's in the cupboard.*** But we digress.)

The study, released earlier this month, was commissioned by forbes.com, which asked a Florida-based research company, Catalina Marketing, to look at purchases of unhealthy foods in the 50 largest metropolitan areas.

The study included most supermarket chains, including Harris Teeter, Food Lion and Bi Lo, but not club and mass merchandisers, drug stores and Wal-Mart.

Sigh. Once again, somebody's invoking the magic of a "study" without telling us what's studied. So somebody else has to track down the press release:

Every week Americans head to the grocery store knowing what should fill their carts--fruits, vegetables and unprocessed foods packed with whole grains. (Uh, yeah. Oops! Methods! Let's look for some methods!)

... Analysts calculated the total amount of money spent on more than 100,000 individual product codes deemed generally unhealthy at 17,000 grocery stores. Those figures were then corrected for total expenditures in grocery stores.

Except, as noted, for your Wal-Mart, your Sam's Club, your drug stores, and your Whole Foods. And, should you take the historic main drag north from campus, all the You Buy We Fry shops before and after the grocery store near the old Model T plant. So this difference of 0.02 percentage points between the top two cities is a significant measure of -- what again? Set aside for a moment the question of whether some percentage of a grocery bill says anything about the aggregate "us" and whether "we" love "our" junk food more or less than we did yesterday, or more or less than those happy Alaskans, or whatever. What's the outcome here?

Now, instead of the science approach, you could always back up a few grafs and note -- hmm, press release. And that leads to a more qualitative or humanist approach, in which we ask: Which interests in particular are served by the appearance on the front of a rewritten press release from forbes.com? The paper gets to ingratiate itself to some unknown part of its readership by saying "we" and "our." Forbes gets some free advertising space on the front. And the rest of us? Well, we don't get much, do we?

OK, fine; nobody's directly hurt by this. It's publicity-as-news and it's junk nutritionism, but it isn't actually harmful. Except that like so many journalistic Chee-Toes,**** it's clogging up space that might be spent on actual news -- you know, true, relevant stuff that risks making a difference in how people view the world. You guys have an incumbent senator who sort of like openly advocates discrimination on the basis of religious affiliation; were you planning to let her constituents know about that at some point? Is there another Georgia-Russia war out there that we might ought to know about before the tanks actually start rolling?

Yeah, yeah. People who are interested in why transition states do or don't try to blow the hell out of each other can go look it up themselves, right? Fair enough. We do anyway. But it's a lot easier when the precursor conditions to blowing the hell out of your neighbor are considered to be "news" (which, after all, they traditionally were) and given at least a chance to compete with stupid press releases from forbes.com. If they aren't, well ... it gets a little harder to justify that 50 cents a day, doesn't it?

* Right, that's the hortatory subjunctive,** waving at you from the offlede there.
** Language Czarina notes that it was also the Salad Subjunctive during her days as a classicist.
*** All your arteries are belong to us.
**** This may or may not be the standard plural, and I'm not entirely sure any rational adult should care.

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2 Comments:

Blogger The Ridger, FCD said...

Yes, the "this is a LOCAL paper" argument founders if you can't be bothered to report on local politics, either...

11:06 AM, August 30, 2008  
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