A good trend piece should be pop sociology. But getting the kind of statistics that you need to prove a trend is difficult for a reporter to muster on a reporter’s deadline and budget. So I hereby call for a severe reduction in trend stories. Run ’em when you got ’em, of course, when you have the hard numbers that can back them up. But don’t necessarily get rid of all the quirky, impossible-to-prove observations of the quirks of our culture that reporters come across. For that, we need a new form. I don’t have a great name for it yet, but something along the lines of the “casual notice” piece or the “cultural observation” piece. Replace the pop [sociology] with pop anthropology. [Wrong word corrected from original posted version.]
The occasion for this proposal is a story Poynter ran today about Slate’s press critic Jack Shafer and his frequent take-downs of what he calls bogus trend stories. His most recent took apart a New York Times story on how criminals in New York City supposedly wear a lot of Yankee caps in their work. Another Times story that struck me as a bogus trend recently was one that claimed that gentiles were hanging onto mezuzas left behind by their Jewish predecessors in apartments. I’m with Shafer: these aren’t trends. But! They could still be interesting observations about city life. So, how can we preserve the observation without inflating these stories to being trends that they aren’t?
It’s simply a matter of reducing the claim–or at least changing the claim. As I said above, the problem with the trend story is that it aspires to pop sociology, and sociologists, as a rule, are concerned with broad generalizations about societies. Statistics. But anthropologists cover a lot of the same ground, building not from stratified sampling and structured surveys, but from particular experience. And I’ve long felt that journalists are more comfortable working in an anthropological vein.
The Poynter piece cites Nick Kristof and Clint Hendler repeating the old saw about how, for a journalist, the plural of anecdote is trend. But there’s nothing that says a collection of anecdotes, shorn of the importance of trying to add up to a trend, can’t be interesting journalism. So why not use the informality that is seeping into journalism from the web and social media to develop a more casual format for these collections of anecdotes? There’s no reason to spike an interesting observation from a reporter just because there are no statistics to back it up. Three anecdotes may not be a trend, but they’re still three interesting anecdotes.
So, my dear news organization, develop a brief, informal series of reporter’s observations that are phrased something like this: “Hey, in my reporting, I noticed that there are at least a few gentiles in New York City who have kept their mezuzas up when the follow Jewish families into an apartment. Here are the stories of a couple of them that I interviewed.” And, importantly, end with: “Has anyone else noticed this?” and let social media take care of the conversation that this kind of story is meant to engender in the first place.