The institutional memory of a newspaper gets swept into the trash at the end of every working day. Even the nation’s best dailies publish stories without consulting their own archives to see if a new report contradicts a previous account, and therefore requires an explanation, or merely confirms earlier results—which calls into question why the new piece was commissioned in the first place.
Institutional memory is particularly short when newspapers commit themselves to publishing stories about “emerging trends.” The New York Times exposed its memory loss earlier this week when it tapped into the collective anxiety about balancing kids and career with the Page One piece,”Many Women at Elite Colleges Set Career Path to Motherhood” (Sept. 20).
The story doesn’t directly assert that a new trend of elite college females eschewing work for family is afoot. It doesn’t have to. As I noted in a “Press Box” column published the same day, the heavy use of the word “many” (it appears a dozen times, counting the headline) and a mountain of anecdotes about Yalies who say they anticipate devoting themselves to their children’s playroom instead of the corporate boardroom leverages the article into a piece of trendology.
The lede of the article, written by Louise Story, reads:
Cynthia Liu is precisely the kind of high achiever Yale wants: smart (1510 SAT), disciplined (4.0 grade point average), competitive (finalist in Texas oratory competition), musical (pianist), athletic (runner) and altruistic (hospital volunteer). And at the start of her sophomore year at Yale, Ms. Liu is full of ambition, planning to go to law school.So will she join the long tradition of famous Ivy League graduates? Not likely. By the time she is 30, this accomplished 19-year-old expects to be a stay-at-home mom.
Evidence of Times amnesia comes in the form of a very similar story published on its Page One 25 years ago. Titled “Many Young Women Now Say They’d Pick Family Over Career” (Dec. 28, 1980), the article begins:
She could be the symbol of everything the women’s movement fought to win. A senior at Princeton, she has just won a Rotary fellowship to study in France. She expects to attend business school and work in international finance.But when Mary Anne Citrino marries and has her children, she says, she plans to quit whatever job she has for eight years to become a full-time mother.She is not alone. At a time when young women have more job opportunities and chances for advancement than ever, many of them now in college appear to be challenging the values of their predecessors. They are questioning whether a career is more important than having children and caring for them personally.
Very familiar material, eh? The 1980 Times story rings other bells rung by the 2005 version. It uses the qualifier “many” (11 times, including in the headline) with the same abandon. (Do trend writers buy the word in bulk at Costco?) It assembles and frames anecdotes about undergraduate females at a top university to suggest—without directly saying so—that women’s values about career vs. motherhood are in flux. And it juxtaposes those two choices in the same rigid, unhelpful way. There wasn’t an Internet back in 1980 where readers could salute or damn what they read in the Times, but I’ll bet the article stirred a massive debate around water coolers, at kitchen tables, and inside universities. Its intensity probably matched that of the one going on today about the Story article. Her piece, which ran three days ago, is currently the second most e-mailed story from the Times. According to the blog search engine Feedster, 67 blogs or sites currently link to it.
Louise Story defends her article and its methodology from Connecticut, * where she’s pursuing a master’s degree at the Yale School of Management. She graduated from Yale in 2003, where she contributed to the Yale Daily News.c
In my first “Press Box” piece, I flippantly wrote that I suspected that the idea for the story came from cocktail chatter overhead by a Times editor. My suspicion was wrong. The idea came to Story in the summer of 2004 while attending the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. * Once there, she developed it into her master’s project under adviser Sylvia Nasar. Story earned her master’s in 2005. (It is not uncommon for Columbia J-school projects to find a publisher or broadcaster.)
I also criticized Story’s story for citing the results from an e-mail survey of 138 Yale undergraduate females without crediting the survey to any author. For a story so dependent on the fuzzy quantifier “many,” it’s important for readers to know the provenance of Story’s purported hunk of hard data, that “roughly 60 percent [of respondents] said that when they had children, they planned to cut back on work or stop working entirely.”
Story says she conducted the survey from November 2004 to January 2005 while at Columbia. Earlier this week, the editors of Gelf Magazineposted a list of questions from the survey, and remarked how some of them were “loaded,” that is, likely to produce a biased result. For instance, the first question—”When you have children, do you plan to stay at home with them or do you plan to continue working? Why?”—assumes that the respondents intend to have children.
Story says she revised the survey after its weaknesses were pointed out to her. But in her final tabulation, she retained the responses from about 30 women who answered the first survey because, she said, the responses didn’t vary significantly from those given to the revised version. She concedes the survey wasn’t conducted with social-science rigor but calls it “a very good journalistic questionnaire.”
The problem with Story’s e-mail survey is not that she asked a lot of students questions. Reporters are supposed to ask lots of people questions. But if a journalist wants readers to be impressed by numbers like “roughly 60 percent,” they must 1) say who collected the numbers and 2) explain how the numbers were collected. The Times and Story failed the reader by not stating that these findings were about as anecdotal and impressionistic as, say, the findings of a columnist like David S. Broder based on 100 interviews he conducted in Iowa to take the state’s political temperature. Broder would never write, “roughly 60 percent of 100 Iowans interviewed believe the president is doing a bad job,” because a hard number indicates that such numerical findings have real significance (especially when their source is not divulged). Instead, Broder would typically place the results in their proper anecdotal context, by using a phrase like “most of the Iowans I met with. …” That would dispel the misapprehension that he thought his interviews had the same footing as as a Gallup poll. Story, on the other hand, presented her results to sound like good sociology.
Story has strong and adamant defenders. Master’s adviser Sylvia Nasar, a former Times reporter, accuses me of “shooting first and asking questions later” because I published my first critique without conducting any interviews with the principals, and only later talked to Story and others connected to the piece. While I sometimes do interviews for press critiques, I feel no more obliged to phone the author of a work of journalism to discuss it with him before writing a press column than a book critic feels that he should phone up the author of a book before reviewing it. The article or book is the thing. Unlike most book reviewers, though, if my piece is called into question I am willing to 1) correct it, and 2) do additional research and interviews for a follow-up, as I have here.
Story wrote for the Times business section over the summer. Her Times colleague, the much decorated David Cay Johnston, is a major fan of her work. “Among the young journalists I have mentored over the past three decades, Louise Story is in a league by herself,” he writes in an e-mail. She quickly grasps “subtle issues at the level of theory and principle whose significance and context she writes about in plain English.”
One criticism of Story’s article is that college students are poor predictors of what sorts of adults become. To test this idea I conducted some purely anecdotal research of my own: I Googled the lead character of the 1980 New York Times story, Mary Anne Citrino. Within minutes, I reached her at her New York City office at the Blackstone Group, an investment and advisory group, where she is a senior managing director.
Citrino laughed at this week’s Times story when she read it, recalling her role in the similarly squishy Times story from a generation ago. She says the Times reporter misrepresented what she said, attributing to her sentiments that were “the exact opposite of what I meant.”
“I never wanted to be a full-time mother,” says Citrino. She says she was considered the most gung-ho career woman among her classmates, never stopped working after finishing school, has three children, and put in 20 years at Morgan Stanley before joining Blackstone a year ago.
“I never even considered giving up my career,” Citrino says.
But that’s just one anecdote, mind you.
Thanks to David Hechler of Corporate Counsel magazine, who steered me to the 1980 New York Times article. Also, Avi Zenilman did research for this piece. Send trend e-mail to email@example.com. (E-mail may be quoted unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)
Correction, Sept. 24: The original version of this piece stated that Louise Story was interviewed from New Haven, Conn. She was interviewed from Cos Cob, Conn. The copy has been corrected. Also, the original version of the piece stated that Story began her graduate studies in journalism in fall 2004. She began her studies in summer 2003. (Return to the corrected sentence.)
Addendum, Sept. 28:On Sept. 23, Louise Story described on NYTimes.com how she reported her article.