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Plug In the Numbers

Somewhere in all those statistics the media spew, you might find the truth.
June 1, 2002

In the wake of September's terrorist attacks, news outlets from the New York Daily News to the Los Angeles Times saw a trend. Americans were cocooning--we were pampering ourselves at home rather than going out.

Hold that, some of these same organizations reported weeks later--we were wrong: There is no trend.

Sure there is. The trend is for media--newspapers, TV, the Internet and (ahem) magazines--to report as many trends as possible. Usually the media support their claims with polling data for credibility. The numbers, however, also get them in trouble.

"Numbers for a lot of people, and [for] journalists in particular, have a mystical quality," says G. Evan Witt, president of polling firm Princeton Survey Research Associates Inc. in Washington, DC. "If it's true, it's precise."

Ah, that magic word: If. As 19th century British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli put it: "There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics."

Unfortunately, statistics frequently trip journalists up, says Michael Fumento, author of Science Under Siege (William Morrow & Co.) and frequent critic of the way the media handle numbers. "One mistake they make is projecting a trend from too few points," he says. Malicious misrepresentation or the inevitable clash of English majors with numbers? "It can be intentional or unconscious."

No wonder the public already discounts journalists, according to Lawrence T. McGill, a researcher at Princeton University and co-author of the influential 1995 Media Studies Journal article "The Citizen as Media Critic." "Typically, half the country sees the news as [poor to fair]," he says.

To which you may be saying "Duh!" But before you get smug about scribblers eating crow, ask yourself, What's an entrepreneur to do? You need some means of discerning which trends suggest real opportunities for your business and which are shoddily reported filler. You can't make decisions in a vacuum. Media critics and supporters suggest the following when you read about a trend:

Media critic and columnist Jon Katz finds most social trends and analyses laughable, but respects data in business publications more than studies cited in the mainstream press. "The [business] audience is more demanding," he says.

Rainie also considers conditional questions a red flag. For example, beware the survey claiming people would be willing to pay X for a particular service they don't already have. "People often don't know about things they've never done," he says.

"If you see just two poll numbers in a blurb, don't base a decision on it," says Witt. "At least spend the effort [to find out about a poll] proportional to how much you're going to rely on the info."

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