Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Those darn kids!

Could it get any better than this? Desk mis- interprets the story in which staffer mis- interprets the epic in which the AP mis- interprets the data in which ... two or three more turns of the wheel and we'll have a perfect Escherian roomful of mirrors here:

Turn on, tune in, alienate your elders.

(By the way? When you can delete the lede with no effect whatsoever on how the rest of the text is understood, that's a sign. And it's not a good one.)

Texting, tweeting, social networking and other high-tech interests are apparently fueling a generation gap that has never been wider -- even during the turbulent 1960s.

If any of that is true, it could be mildly interesting. I wonder how we know it.

"Absolutely, I see it," recent college graduate Stephanie Hummel said of the division, identified in a recent Pew Research Center report on aging. "I think a lot of it has to do with advances in technology."

Oh. Well, if a college graduate said it, it must be true!

The study, reported this week in The Dispatch and other newspapers, found that older and younger Americans increasingly disagree on a range of issues, especially those centering on social values and morality.

That's our first mention of "the study," which sounds as if the Dispatch thinks it must have made a pretty big impact on you. And indeed, you might have seen it -- particularly if you read one of those papers that were clueless enough to lead the front page with it on Monday:

From cell phones and texting to religion and manners, younger and older Americans see the world differently, creating the largest generation gap since the tumultuous years of the 1960s and the culture clashes over Vietnam, civil rights and women's liberation.

That's the AP reporting on somebody else's study, and once again, if any of it is true, it could be mildly interesting. Problem is, only some of it is "true" in any reliable way, and the parts that are true by themselves aren't true in combination.

A new study released Monday by the Pew Research Center found Americans of different ages increasingly at odds over a range of social and technological issues. It also highlights a widening age divide after last November's election, when 18- to 29-year-olds voted for Democrat Barack Obama by a 2-to-1 ratio.

Think of a few of the things that have to be true for that graf to be true (not just the assertions about who's "at odds" with whom about what, but that all those age divides are increasingly widening). How does the AP propose to support them?

Almost eight in 10 people believe there is a major difference in the point of view of younger people and older people today, according to the independent public opinion research group. That is the highest spread since 1969, when about 74 percent reported major differences in an era of generational conflicts over the Vietnam War and civil and women's rights. In contrast, just 60 percent in 1979 saw a generation gap.

Asked to identify where older and younger people differ most, 47 percent said social values and morality. People age 18 to 29 were more likely to report disagreements over lifestyle, views on family, relationships and dating, while older people cited differences in a sense of entitlement.

...Younger people are more likely to embrace technology. About 75 percent of adults 18 to 30 went online daily, compared with 40 percent of those 65 to 74 and about 16 percent for people 75 and older. The age gap widened over cell phones and text messaging.

Are you starting to get the feeling that you ordered apple pie and someone just brought you Orange Junius? You should be. The AP's mixing up two kinds of data here: long story short, "what do you perceive?" and "what do you do?" And the result is basically a clusterf*** designed by committee. Let's flip back to the Dispatch for a moment:

Nearly eight in 10 Americans cited major differences between the generations, a higher percentage than in 1969, when the country was divided over the Vietnam War and civil rights, pollsters for the independent public-opinion group said.*

How do you get an answer like that? You ask: "Some people talk about a generation gap. Do you think there is a major difference in the point of view of younger people and older people today?” The wording was a bit different in the earlier surveys, but yes, we have a fairly valid and reliable way of measuring whether people are more likely to think there's a "generation gap" now than in 1969 or 1979.

That's not a ton of data, and if you're wondering why the AP's getting all breathless about the "widening age divide" since November when the previous data point is in 1979, you should be (actually, you should have been before you pitched the story for the Monday front page). Further, as the Pew folks have the common sense to point out, we have no way of knowing whether "generation gap" means the same thing today as it did in 1969.** That makes it entirely different from a question like "Do you ever use your cell phone to send or receive text messages?"

To sum the Pew study up in a hurry: Everybody seems to think there's a "generation gap." Most people think their age cohort differs from others on those values things. Most groups seem to think the difference is on "morality/ethics/beliefs"; older people are more likely to specify "sense of entitlement" or "work ethic." That doesn't mean You Kids have a Sense of Entitlement;*** it means that's what one group thinks about another.

So to combine that set of impressions with a bunch of self-report data about who sends what kind of message on which kind of phone should strike you as -- pretty clueless? Sure, except that the AP enlivened a boring weekend by creating a major trend piece out of this, allowing the Dispatch to make things even worse:

The methods of protest have changed dramatically in the past 40 years, said Hummel, 22. ... Young people today, she said, use Twitter, Facebook and other Web-based forums to communicate and express their views.

Our survey, of course, isn't about methods of protest, or about how people express their views. That's no more random than suggesting that those Plugged-In Kids are baffling the grownups, but it's no less random either -- which ought to be a giant red warning light, suggesting that our 1A story is a complete and utter fabrication, consisting of a few local people more or less supporting the points that the AP managed to torture out of somebody else's data.

It wasn't a story Monday. It wasn't a story Wednesday. Have editors simply decided there's no longer any point in asking writers to support their wild-ass cultural generalizations with evidence, or is there some other reason for allowing this stuff to skate unimpeded toward the front page?

* By the way? Please don't omit words at random. The AP's description, "public opinion research group," makes sense; "public opinion group" is just clueless.
** Not to be rude or anything, but -- jeez, have newsrooms now run off everybody who saw "All in the Family" when it was new?
*** Though if you don't put your baseball caps on right and turn that noise down, I might change my mind.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Have editors simply decided there's no longer any point in asking writers to support their wild-ass cultural generalizations with evidence, or is there some other reason for allowing this stuff to skate unimpeded toward the front page?"

When the wild-ass cultural generalizations support age stereotypes that "everone knows" already, would it occur to anyone in today's newsroom to dispute them? Particularly if their education was of the squidgy "how does that make you feel" sort rather than one based on rational inquiry into objective reality. (Sorry, my biases are showing.) That does leave open the question of why this should be considered "news".

There's not much point in journalism if you don't believe in the existence of objective reality, so we have to assume that the people involved are not entirely hostile to the idea....

PS: Grrr, stupid Blogger won't accept < blockquote >

1:12 AM, July 02, 2009  
Blogger John Cowan said...

Orange Julius, please, not Junius.

6:49 PM, August 06, 2009  

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