The Vacuous Article Template

Every few weeks I come across a newspaper article that so beautifully exemplifies everything wrong with today’s newspaper journalism, it must be deconstructed in excruciating detail. Today’s subject is Michael Fletcher’s Washington Post story entitled, “South Carolina voters torn between values, economy.” The story mirrors what I call the “Vacuous Article” template. The template has four key sections.

1. The existence of a difficult-to-prove trend is proposed.
2. The author quotes an expert in an attempt to support the existence of the trend, but the quote actually contains no real evidence.
3. One statistically insignificant person is introduced as evidence the proposed trend exists.
4. Information is given that seemingly supports the hypothesis, but actually has nothing to do with it.

Let’s examine how today’s article nails the four section.

1. The existence of a difficult-to-prove trend is proposed

The proposed trend is that the weak economy is leading South Carolina conservatives to put an uncharacteristically large weight on economic issues as compared to values issues.

2. The author quotes an expert in an attempt to support the existence of the trend, but the quote actually contains no real evidence.

The article’s expert of choice is Clemson political science professor Bruce Ransom. He informs us that “every cycle, South Carolina is interesting. Here you have the values voter versus the economic conservatives. Now, we have economic hard times hitting people who believe very strongly in social issues. It will be a good test in terms of sorting out which message has the sway.”

Notice how Ransom uses a lot of words to say nothing.

Every cycle, South Carolina is interesting — Yes, because it’s one of the early states, but that doesn’t tell us anything about this year. If anything, it means that it would be interesting if South Carolina was not interesting.

Now, we have economic hard times… — Ransom merely restates vague facts.

It will be a good test… — Ransom essentially says “I don’t know. We’ll see.” This is not exactly glowing support for the trend.

3. One statistically insignificant person is introduced to prove the proposed trend exists.

We meet Karen Christmas, an unemployed textile worker and GOP activist. She is now more concerned with economic issues than value issues. Find 5,000 more people like her and you’ll have shown me something.

4. Information is given that seemingly supports the hypothesis, but actually has nothing to do with it.

The article tells us that Jon Hunstman, Michelle Bachmann, Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, and Tim Pawlenty have talked about economic issues while in South Carolina. There is a reason for this. It’s called a stump speech, and a candidate gives it everywhere they go. You can bet that in any year, under any economic conditions a GOP presidential candidate is going to have a section about taxes, spending, and the economy in his or her stump speech. The fact that these candidates mentioned economic issues means nothing.

—————————————————————————————————————————————–

The worst thing about articles like these is that they crowd out actual news. Nobody is cancelling stories about government corruption in order to write about Jennifer Aniston, but those stories might end up being replaced by stories like one above. Soft news is a waste of resources, but at least we know it’s a waste of resources. Stealth soft news stories like the horse-race article above are so dangerous because we imagine them to have nonexistent benefits.

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One Response to The Vacuous Article Template

  1. Pingback: The Vacuous Article Template: Paul Ryan Something Something Medicare - Peer-reviewed by my neurons | Peer-reviewed by my neurons

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