Tipsy Journalism

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 31, 2006; 6:20 AM

Boy, we can be gullible sometimes.

Cook up something, call it a "study" and, like Pavlov's dogs, panting journalists will put it in print and on the air.

Last May, I fulminated a bit about a spring break survey of college women and graduates under 35, which claimed 74 percent said under-35 women use drinking as an excuse for outrageous behavior. Fifty-seven percent of women surveyed agreed that being promiscuous is a way to fit in. Except the poll, put out by the American Medical Association, was a sham. Among other problems, it was an Internet survey of women who had volunteered to answer questions, a far cry from a random sample.

Well, there was another example lately, mentioned in this NYT column, that was exposed by Carl Bialik, the Wall Street Journal's Numbers Guy.

Here's how the "Today" show handled it: "According to a new online survey, one in 10 teenagers have an underage friend who has ordered beer, wine or liquor over the Internet. More than a third think they can easily do it, and nearly half think they won't get caught." A number of other news outlets ran the story.

First of all, every online survey is suspect, since it's limited to those who have computers and happen to find the site in question (and how do we know the participants are really teenagers?). Second, the survey (As "Today" did note) was commissioned by the Wine and Spirits Wholesalers of America, which has a vested interest in derailing Internet sales that hurt its members.

What's more, the Numbers Guy found that the contractor hired by the wine and spirits folks "gets people to participate in its surveys in part by advertising them online and offering small cash awards -- typically less than $5 for short surveys." So they're paying them off!

"People who agree to participate in online surveys are, by definition, Internet users, something that not all teens are. (Also, people who actually take the time to complete such surveys may be more likely to be active, or heavy, Internet users.) It's safe to say that kids who use the Internet regularly are more likely to shop online than those who don't."

A classic case of media manipulation. That doesn't mean kids aren't buying booze online, any more than the other bogus survey means women aren't going wild on spring break. But I would ban all reporting of Internet surveys. They're useless, and journalists know it.

Tell me if this NYT story gives you a feeling of deja vu:

"With the midterm elections coming into view, President Bush is launching an extended publicity tour to draw attention back to the threat of terrorism, quickly pivoting to more comfortable political territory for him after the focus in recent days on the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.

"Starting with an address to veterans on Thursday, Mr. Bush intends to outline what one adviser described as the "consequences of victory and defeat." He will continue making speeches on the subject throughout the month, keying off the fifth anniversary of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11."

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