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Sex, Booze & Surveys: Journos Gone Wild

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 29, 2006

Call it binge journalism, as out of control as a crazed keg party.

"Girls Behaving Badly," said the Louisville Courier-Journal.

"Girls Go Wild for Booze, Sex," said the Boston Herald.

"Spring Break Can Be Hazardous to Your Health," said the Philadelphia Inquirer.

"There may be some truth to the image of spring break as an orgy of wet T-shirt contests, booze parties and sex on the beach," said USA Today.

"Stop the presses: Sex and intoxication among women more prevalent during spring break," said MSNBC's Tucker Carlson.

The breathless coverage was fueled by a survey of college women and graduates under 35, released in March by the American Medical Association. Some 74 percent said women use drinking as an excuse for outrageous behavior. Fifty-seven percent of women agreed that being promiscuous is a way to fit in, while 83 percent said they had friends who drank most nights while on spring break.

At the risk of spoiling the fun, it must be noted that this poll had zero scientific validity.

For starters, it was an Internet survey of women who volunteered to participate, not a poll relying on randomly selected respondents -- even though the AMA mentioned a "margin of error" common to such polls.

Nonetheless, AMA President J. Edward Hill had warned in a statement that "spring break is broken. . . . These survey results are extremely disturbing because it brings up an entirely new set of issues including increased risk of sexually transmitted diseases, blackouts and violence."

As first reported by the Mystery Pollster blog, which covers debates about the field, Cliff Zukin, president of the American Association for Public Opinion Research, has dismissed the survey as scientifically useless.

"I think it's irresponsible to put that in the public domain," says Zukin, a Rutgers University professor. "There is no scientific basis. I don't trust those numbers. . . . It's silly and it shouldn't have seen the light of day."

Richard Yoast, director of the AMA's Department of Alcohol, Tobacco and Other Drug Abuse, says his organization posted a correction on its Web site to note that this was not a nationwide random sample and should not have included a margin of error, as in standard polls. "In the future, we're going to be more careful," he says.

Yoast says some of the findings reflect only the 27 percent of the 644 respondents who said they had actually been on spring break, but the statistics highlighted in the AMA's press release make no distinction between those who have taken such trips and those who haven't. "We didn't report this as a scientific survey that was completely representative," Yoast says. "We were trying to find out what the female perspective on spring break is."

The flawed methodology didn't stop CBS's "Early Show," NBC's "Today," CNN's "American Morning," "Fox & Friends" and countless other programs from reporting the findings, or dozens of newspapers from carrying an Associated Press story or their own pieces.

"It got picked up partly because it was sexy," says Zukin, who complained to the New York Times about a chart the paper ran on the findings. The Times later ran a correction.

There's little doubt that lots of women (not to mention men) misbehave on spring break. So, on occasion, do credulous journalists.

Blogging From Baghdad

NBC's Richard Engel, the longest-serving American television correspondent in Iraq, says blogging has become an important outlet for him.

"There are things that are incredibly difficult to report on television because of the security situation," he says from Baghdad. "Either we don't have the pictures or we're hearing reports from places that are too dangerous to travel to. And there's a lot of stress and tension here. I find it's cathartic to write about what I've seen."

Several months ago, Engel wrote about a bizarre experience he had standing outside the al-Hamra Hotel, home to many foreign journalists, after it had been bombed. As some birds tussled in a tree, the face of the suicide bomber -- just a piece of skin -- dropped from the leaves.

"I was looking at the person face to face who tried to kill all of us," Engel says. "I wasn't bothered at all. I thought, what's happened to our humanity?"

Last month, Engel blogged about an Iraqi friend who showed off a new cellphone -- which featured videos of an attack on U.S. troops and a suicide bomber's severed head. In Iraq, he wrote, "there's a growing taste for this new war porn."

"It's important for me to write about these things," Engel says. "If you just leave all of that inside, it has an impact."

Engel, who was an ABC freelancer, sneaked into Iraq illegally in early 2003 and hid in safe houses, enabling him to cover the U.S. invasion. Engel signed with NBC soon afterward. He landed an exclusive interview last week with Iraq's new prime minister, Nori al-Maliki.

Engel, who overcame dyslexia as a child, has just been tapped to open a Beirut bureau for NBC. He is looking forward to covering the region but says he thrives on war coverage and will continue to spend time in Iraq. "I'm not a cowboy," he says. "You can't throw caution to the wind."

Riling Russert

Tim Russert is accustomed to asking tough questions, so he was hardly intimidated by the prospect of a short feature interview in the New York Times Magazine tied to his new book, "Wisdom of Our Fathers."

But in an appearance on C-SPAN Friday, the "Meet the Press" host called the published version "misleading, callous and hurtful."

Russert says by telephone that the Times columnist, Deborah Solomon, had pitched the conversation as a Mother's Day interview, and that half the hour-long discussion was about his mother, who died of cancer last year.

Not only was that not reflected in the story, Russert says, but Solomon selectively edited two exchanges to make it appear that he was ducking the subject.

In the May 14 piece -- headlined "All About My Father" -- Solomon asked whether Russert would ever write a book about his mother, Betty, now that he had "heroized" fathers with an earlier book about his dad.

"Can you tell us what your mother taught you?" Solomon asked. Russert talked about a Mother's Day message from his hometown pastor that he said he often discussed with his mom.

The next paragraph: "You still haven't answered the question of what your mom taught you. What do you do on 'Meet the Press' if your guests fail to answer your questions?"

Russert says those two questions were run together -- leaving out a long answer about his mother and skipping directly to his response about the program -- in a way that made him look evasive.

Solomon does not deny merging the questions and omitting the answer but says Russert's response -- about how he flew to his mother's bedside when she was dying -- was off the point. She calls such editing routine.

"I was surprised that a man who is so accomplished would feel so wounded by the interview, which as I told him was rather gentle," Solomon says, adding: "Newspeople can often be the most impossible to interview because they're used to controlling the story themselves."

In a letter to the Times, Russert wrote: "My mom was a central figure in my life. This is my first Mother's Day without her. Miss Solomon's deliberate mischaracterization of our conversation and her feeble attempt at humor made it a particularly painful day."

The Times Magazine has not run the letter, but aggravated him further by publishing one yesterday that mocked "Tim Russert's refusing to answer insistent, Russert-like questioning about the things he learned from his mother."

More Fabrication

The Richmond Times-Dispatch has fired reporter Paul Bradley for making up an interview with the director of a center for day laborers for a piece reacting to President Bush's immigration speech. Despite the Herndon dateline, Bradley never visited the center and lifted one scene from The Washington Post. Bradley, 51, told the Associated Press he had committed an "indefensible journalistic sin."

Dissing Single Women

It was an infamous Newsweek cover 20 years ago, predicting that a single, white, college-educated woman of 40 had less chance of finding a husband than being killed by a terrorist.

It was also spectacularly wrong, as the magazine acknowledged yesterday with a new cover piece saying that 90 percent of boomer women (and men) have married or will do so. Newsweek blames flawed research but says little about its absurd hype in marketing the 1986 story.

As for the terrorist crack, it was originally a funny aside in an internal memo by San Francisco correspondent Pamela Abramson, who now says: "It's true -- I am responsible for the single most irresponsible line in the history of journalism, all meant in jest."

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