The Vacuous Article Template Strikes Again

Today’s award for bad journalism goes to the AP’s Steve Peoples for his story titled “Few in New Hampshire paying attention to GOP race.” Here is a primer on the vacuous article template, but for those unfamiliar with it, it consists of 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 take a look at Peoples’ article:

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

This one is easy because it’s right there in the headline. New Hampshire GOP voters aren’t paying attention.

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

“Many primary voters aren’t truly paying attention to the race right now,” says Michael Dennehy, a New Hampshire-based Republican operative who led Sen. John McCain’s presidential campaign four years ago.

If you take what Dennehy says as fact, the quote has some value. Unfortunately, pundits are generally wrong. Dennehy’s expertise is also questionable because he appears to be somebody with no actual role in the 2012 New Hampshire Primary.

3. One statistically insignificant person is introduced as evidence the proposed trend exists.

That reality was on display last week when 10 New Hampshire women, middle-class mothers with a strong voting history, shared their perspectives on the presidential contest with political researchers — and had trouble simply naming the candidates.

Ok, so there are 10 people. But that’s nowhere near enough to make a generalization. The phrase “strong voting history” is also vague. Couldn’t the women have a strong voting history without ever being very knowledgable about the candidates? And then there’s this:

When asked who was running, they cited Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, and his chief rival, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, relatively quickly.

So the sample that was “not paying attention” could still name the top two candidates, one of whom the betting markets say is 80%-90% likely to win the nomination.

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

Only 11 percent said they have definitely settled on a candidate. Another 21 percent are leaning toward someone. But that leaves 89 percent of people who could change their mind between now and the primary early next year.

The implication is that being undecided stems from a lack of attention, but that ignores the fact that it’s easy to be both undecided and paying attention. Although the statistic reveals something about New Hampshire voters, the revelation is about their commitment and not their level of attention.

As I’ve written before, the worst thing about articles like these is that they crowd out actual news. No editor is nixing stories about government corruption in order to make room for a story about the season premier of Glee, but those important corruption stories might end up getting bumped by “important” stories like one above. Soft news is a waste of resources, but at least we know it’s a waste of resources. What makes stealth soft news stories like the horse-race article above so dangerous is that we imagine them to have nonexistent benefits.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s