More Fuzzy Logic

When bad science begets bad journalism

This just in… journalists over 30 mislead readers and misinterpret sources to support their belief that “Kids today are worse off because that’s not how we did things in my day!” Meanwhile, the irony of dissing the Internet on a newsBLOG is as unchecked as reporters’ facts!

Seriously, though, today saw the report from a “study” conducted by “researchers” at the University of Maryland – College Park called: A Day Without Media. This class assignment, now being blown completely out of proportion by both the original authors scientists teachers (? what do you call the instigators of a simple class assignment that’s getting interpreted as valid scientific data?) and by every scare-tactic journalist this side of a keyboard (some examples are listed at the end of this post), apparently asked students to, and I quote the Washington Post here, “go without social media for 24 hours.” The result? 18-21 year old students appear to be “addicted” to their iPods, smartphones, and Facebook.

But hold up. Before you go reblogging and sharing and RTing whichever newssite’s ‘fascinating report’ hits you first (for me it was, oddly, CTV’s report), let’s try to separate fact from fiction.

First and foremost, the facts. Although nearly every article I’ve read points to “social media” as the target of the study, the students in question were actually asked to give up ALL FORMS OF MEDIA: internet, cellphones, iPods, magazines, newspapers, and *music*—that’s right, MUSIC. Here’s how the assignment was actually written:

THE ASSIGNMENT: This week your assignment is to find a 24-hour period during which you can pledge to give up all use of media: no Internet, no newspapers or magazines, no TV, no cell phones, no iPod, no music or movies, etc. And definitely no Facebook. Although you may need to use the Internet for homework or work, try to pick a time when you can go without using it. This should be an interesting experience for you and examining your own dependencies, so really try to give yourself a chance to do the whole 24 hours.

And before we suggest that students would interpret this as just modern, or social, media, what did students have to say? How about this:

“I do believe that the iPod touch is the greatest thing ever invented, having thousands of applications which allow me to check my email, check the weather, play games, and listen to my 16 gigabytes of music, half of which have probably never been played. It is genius, it fits in my pocket, and if there was one thing other than not playing guitar that was going to make this assignment impossible, it was not having my iPod on me.”

While Washington Post blogger Valerie Strauss uses this quote to support her snarky asinine dismissal of the value of an iPod, I, instead, see how this student not only gave up his iPod, but his guitar, as well. That’s right; he followed the assignment as written and gave up all music, along with all other media, for the 24-hours of this mandatory assignment.

So, let’s see… a day without Internet, phone, music, movies/TV, newpapers, or magazines. What’s left? Going outside and enjoying the beautiful day? The beautiful, upper 40s, windy outside, late-winter Maryland day? (That’s right, even basic fact checking would tell you that the week of this assignment, Feb 27 – Mar 4, 2010, wasn’t the warmest part of the year by any stretch… not to mention that with the closing ceremony of the Vancouver Olympics and the Chilean earthquake, would *you* really want to have been cut off from ALL MEDIA for 24 hours? [seriously, UMCP IRB… how did this “study” even get passed?])

But I digress. Back to my point. If you’re asked to cut off ALL MEDIA for 24 hours—what’s left? Some students reported to reading books during the 24-hour blackout, but I don’t see how books, the ur-media, would be considered acceptable while playing guitar would not. This discrepancy of what is and is not “media” I think underlines the heart of my problem with this study. It was poorly thought out, poorly designed, poorly controlled, and yet has been taken as producing valid scientific results.

Although one jungenblogger for ZDNet, Zack Whittaker, thinks the methodology was ‘pretty rock solid’, I heavily disagree. While Whittaker makes a good point that the term “addiction” is being improperly used by reporters relative to this story, I’d suggest that the entire study was set up to achieve exactly the kind of “addiction-terminology” that students reported. While I can’t comment on whether the classroom dialog preceding this “experiment” was biased or not, take another look at the wording of the assignment (emphasis mine):

…This should be an interesting experience for you and examining your own dependencies, so really try to give yourself a chance to do the whole 24 hours.

There’s no question that a phrase like “dependencies” will bias the student reports towards addiction-based terminology; the students, after all, just want a good grade.

It’s the unexamined implications at this most basic level of fact checking and interpretation that really gets my goat. While we can hem-haw all day about whether the Internet is a positive or negative social influence, about whether constant access to quick and easy media, connections, and communications are a boon or a bane to our society at large, while we can continue to ignore the blatant hypocrisy of pejorative comments about the Internet on the Internet, we shouldn’t be so quick as to overlook the fundamentals of good science and good reporting. Get your facts straight first, please.

Perhaps most disheartening of all, Susan Moeller, the instigator of this study, should know better. She specializes in (apparently… according to her website, which I’ve been wasting my time reading when I could have been “doing something real” offline) “US and global media and public policy, especially in regards to violence, conflict, war and disasters; terrorism and WMD; human rights; photojournalism; trauma, ethics.” One would think that someone with these credentials would be better equipped to not only responsibly conduct this study, but responsibly respond to its misinterpretation and sensationalization as well. But apparently not.

There is value here, however. Professor Moeller could take her own report and the newscloud surrounding it as a TEACHABLE MOMENT in bad journalism and bad science. Perhaps she could end with a comparative study on the effects of media on an older generation. I imagine the headlines would go something like this: UM School of Journalism staff asked to give up all media for 24 hours; show the exact same “addiction discourse” as 18-21 year olds, doesn’t make news because report lack “darn kids today” angle

I dunno, maybe it’s just me. Maybe it’s just that because I fall on the pro-Social Media, pro-Internet side of things, I knew how to do the 5 minute Google search to get at the heart of this report, while the “darn kids don’t know how to log off!” sympathizers got lost in the sea of information and blamed the ocean for the holes in their sinking ship.

Links not yet mentioned above:

The study’s own blog:
The study’s methods:
The Chronicle of Higher Education:
CTI Career Search:
University of Maryland Newsdesk:
UM’s online description of the course in question:

Finally, the only balanced report I’ve found in my 10-minute search, Discovery Channel News: