Posts Tagged ‘journalism’

Too Much Social Science?

This blog is one small example of a media- and internet-wide phenomenon: the torrent of reports on social science research. There was a time, back in the ‘80s, when some of us bemoaned the dearth of social science reporting in the media. That dearth motivated my experiment in the early 2000s with Contexts, a magazine of sociology for general readers, and then this blog a decade later. Now, I’m here to bemoan too much social science reporting.

The voracious appetite of the media, particularly the online venues, for “content” has combined with trends in the social sciences to produce an efflorescence of reports on social science findings. Unfortunately, there are many weeds as well as blossoms in this dense garden. Maybe there is too much social science reporting, too much tabloid social science journalism.


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This post is another grumpy complaint about a popular media trope that is historically and sociologically misguided, but, more important, that misdirects our attention: hand-wringing by young folks about being friendless and lonely in the 21st century. Complaints of young, privileged writers, echoed by older ones who have been peddling this theme for decades, distract us from the real, albeit old-school, problems of the 21st century: the material struggles of the the less-privileged.

The meme I refer to is a long string of magazine articles and newspaper stories that have gone viral about how isolated and friendless Americans have supposedly become. Sometimes the stories blame new technologies for isolating us (e.g., “Is Facebook Making us Lonely?”; “Driving Us to Isolation”; “Is Social Media Isolating...”) and sometimes they just blame the culture of the day.


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Nicholas Lemann, noted author and Professor of Journalism at Columbia, has an essay in the latest New Yorker on the 50th anniversary of Kitty Genovese’s brutal murder in the Kew Gardens section of New York City. Young readers will recognize the name, if they recognize it all, as a case they heard about in Psychology 1 illustrating how people can be indifferent to others in need. The March 27, 1964, headline in the New York Times said it all: 37 Who Saw Murder Didn’t Call the Police: Apathy at Stabbing of Queens Woman Shocks Inspector. The next day’s installment was headlined: Apathy Is Puzzle in Queens Killing: Behavioral Specialists Hard Put to Explain Witnesses’ Failure to Call Police–Interpretations Vary–Some Say Tendency Not to Get Involved Is Typical Others Call it Uncommon.

As Lemann recounts the oft-recounted story, two new books on it having just appeared, he describes a case of journalistic – and perhaps, academic – malpractice. The best estimate, per Lemann, is that only a handful of people were actually aware that she was being attacked and about half of those tried to do something. (The assailant was at first chased away by neighbors yelling at the initial attack. He came back later and trapped Genovese in a stairwell out of all but perhaps one witness’s sight and in earshot of only a few.) In the end, maybe several people could be fairly charged with apathy – or fear – although the debate about that still rages (e.g., see here and here). (Update: And a 2015 film by Genovese’s brother, “The Witness,” further undermines the classic story.)

Whatever the facts, the story, magnified by noted New York Times writer and later editor A. M. Rosenthal, set off decades of philosophizing about the human condition, black humor about New York City, and hundreds of psychology experiments – a form of academic headline-chasing – probably starting with this one four years after the murder. Since then, research on “bystander intervention,” asking when people do or do not intervene to help a stranger in need, boomed into an even bigger research field on “pro-social behavior,” asking why anybody ever helps anybody at all.

The story has lasted amazingly long. Kitty Genovese’s name appeared in the New York Times – and in social science journals – more often in the 2000s than in any previous decade. Except for a brief surge in 1975, her name has appeared in American books at a steady rate for the last roughly 45 years (nGram analysis).

Lemann does a great job of exploring the case, the coverage, and its cultural resonance. Here, I want to comment about the Kitty Genovese story’s role in accentuating and embellishing the late-twentieth-century image of the nightmare city.


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Makes One Anxious

Sometimes journalism makes a social scientist scratch his head. (For instance, it seemed to take ages for the press to report that economic inequality in the U.S. has been great and growing since the 1970s – and has not been balanced by equal opportunity, which has been weak and waning. More on this next week.) This post is about another, smaller puzzle: The New York Times’s obsession with “anxiety.”


“Anxiety” is the name of a regular Times’s online blog, which makes a frequent appearance in print. Postings include memoirs, musings, works of fiction, and art – all about the anguish of anxiety. It is true that “anxiety disorders” are, according to NIMH, the most common “mental disorders” in the United States. But one could imagine an occasional nod to, say, the more destructive category of “mood disorders.”

Maybe the Times’s editors think that we are now living in an “age of anxiety.” However, wise observers have been declaring “ages of anxiety” for at least 65 years, perhaps many more.


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New News, Old News

I look forward to reading Steven Pinker’s heralded new book on violence.


Its message, that violence has sharply declined in human history, has been received with gasps of amazement – at least by The New York Times Book Review and by NPR. Pinker appears to have done a thorough job of summarizing the findings – old, familiar findings. My comment focuses on how this media attention illustrates how  the same historical findings come around and around again as startling “news.” (more…)

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