Friday, February 02, 2007

Marriage and journalistic honesty

I came across a particularly interesting (in the sense of ew, what's that freakish thing living under a rock???) case of yellow journalism recently.

First, some background: in January, the New York Times ran a story [story has been archived] about their analysis of the latest census results. They reported that, for possibly the first time in recorded history, a majority of women in the USA are living without a husband.

Take note of the story headline, 51% of women were living without a husband. The story says:

For what experts say is probably the first time, more American women are living without a husband than with one, according to a New York Times analysis of census results.

In 2005, 51 percent of women said they were living without a spouse, up from 35 percent in 1950 and 49 percent in 2000.

Coupled with the fact that in 2005 married couples became a minority of all American households for the first time, the trend could ultimately shape social and workplace policies, including the ways government and employers distribute benefits.

It's quite clear: not "single women", or "unmarried women", but "living without a husband".

In case there is any doubt, the New York Times gives details about what they mean: they tell what counts as "living without a husband", they explain that one reason for the change is that women are getting married later than ever before, and they even admit that the living arrangements are often temporary:

In a relatively small number of cases, the living arrangement is temporary, because the husbands are working out of town, are in the military or are institutionalized. But while most women eventually marry, the larger trend is unmistakable.

"This is yet another of the inexorable signs that there is no going back to a world where we can assume that marriage is the main institution that organizes people's lives," said Prof. Stephanie Coontz, director of public education for the Council on Contemporary Families, a nonprofit research group. "Most of these women will marry, or have married. But on average, Americans now spend half their adult lives outside marriage."

The New York Times couldn't have been more clear and upfront about what the Census Bureau's 2005 American Community survey results show.

But that's not good enough for conservative pundits, like the fine citizen journalists at This is what Peter Smith had to say about the story:

New York Times Gets Another Story Very Wrong - This Time it's about Marriage
Accused of "journalistic malpractice" for skewing stats to incorrectly show most women not marrying
By Peter J. Smith

Strong words, but hardly correct. As the earlier quotes show, the NYT did not, by any stretch of imagination, claim that most women are "not marrying". If there is any "journalistic malpractice" here, it is by Smith. What part of "Most of these women will marry" was too hard to understand?

Smith writes:

However, Roberts creates his own analysis by using the Census Bureau's "Living Arrangements of Persons 15 Years Old and Over by Selected Characteristics", by including in his 51% figure of women living without a spouse: unmarried teenage and college girls still living with their parents, women whose husbands work out of town, are institutionalized, or are separated from husbands serving in Afghanistan and Iraq.

I have to wonder why Smith thinks it is appropriate to exclude women who are living without a spouse when talking about women who are living without a spouse.

Naturally, the conservatives questions the NYT for including young adults, 15 years and older, in the survey. But fifty years ago, marriage at 16 was relatively common -- now it is virtually unheard of. That's a significant shift, and one which continues as people choose to remain unmarried for longer periods of their life. That's precisely the point the NYT is making.

Smith criticises the NYT figures for failing to match the the census figures which show that "60.4% of men and 56.9% of women over 18 years old are married." But the last US census was in 2000, and the NYT is explicitly referring to 2005 data. Naturally there is going to be some difference.

Smith is less than transparent with his quoting of statistics:

Among marriageable women over 18 years old, 56.9% of women are married, with 53% having a spouse present, 1.4% with a spouse absent, 9.9% widowed, and 11.5% divorced.

The numbers don't quite add up... 53 + 1.4 + 9.9 + 11.5 = 75.8%. That falls short of 100% by almost a quarter. Who has he left out? But even his figures for married women are off: 53 + 1.4 = 54.4%, shy of the 56.9% in total he quotes. I suppose the difference could be "no answer": those who declined to say whether their husband was absent or not.

Who are the people of LifeSite? Their About Us page gives a couple of clues:

  1. LifeSite emphasizes the social worth of traditional Judeo-Christian principles but is also respectful of all authentic religions and cultures that esteem life, family and universal norms of morality.

  2. LifeSite's writers and founders have come to understand that respect for life and family are endangered by an international conflict. That conflict is between radically opposed views of the worth and dignity of every human life and of family life and community. It has been caused by secularists attempting to eliminate Christian morality and natural law principles which are seen as the primary obstacles to implementing their new world order.

(Emphasis added.)

Yes, you read that right. "Secularists" are against life and family. "New world order" (at least they aren't capitalising it any longer). And as for war, well, the only war worth talking about is the supposed (that is, imaginary) war against Christian morality.

If you think I'm exaggerating, I urge you to spend some time with Google investigating the stories on their site. Google on " war" and you will find plenty of references to the "war on families", the "culture war", "war on religion" and even the "war on home-schooling", but very little if anything on any actual war involving soldiers and bombs and death.

It isn't that the people of LifeSite are ignorant of the Iraq invasion and occupation. Oh no, they are happy to tell their readers that media coverage of anti-Iraq war protests are examples of the culture war. But as for the actual war itself, virtually nothing. The NYT reporting on marriage is a Clear and Present Danger, but an actual war with actual deaths started by people like George W. Bush (born-again Christian), Donald Rumsfeld (another fundamentalist Christian), and Dick Chaney (what a surprise, another devout Christian) is barely remarked on.

But I digress... unfortunately it isn't just the axe-grinding fringe upset with the NYT for reporting facts which disturb the conservative blinkered worldview. Even the mainstream Boston Globe (deliberately?) misunderstands the NYT story, writing: does the Times reach a contrary conclusion? By excluding from the category of women with husbands the "relatively small number of cases" -- in fact, it's more than 2 million -- in which "husbands are working out of town, are in the military, or are institutionalized." That startling Page 1 headline is true, in other words, only if the wives of US troops at war are deemed not to have husbands.

Sheer and utter nonsense. The NYT never said they didn't have husbands. It said they were living without a husband. That's a legitimate distinction: a legally separated women still "has" a husband, since she's still legally married, but she's clearly living without a husband. Although the reasons are different, wives whose husbands are in jail, or in Iraq, are likewise living without a husband -- just like the NYT says, in plain and simple English.

The NYT takes care not to confuse "living without a husband" with "unmarried", while the conservative pundits deliberately confuse the two. And let's face it, if they didn't, there would be no story here -- except, naturally, the original story that more than half of all women of marriageable age in the USA are now living without a husband. Whatever the reasons for this social change, whether the true figure is 51% or 50% or 49%, it is a significant social change from the "Good Old Days" when girls married at 16 or 17 and stayed with their husband until one of them died.

The Boston Globe makes a point of noting that the "relatively small number of cases" mentioned by the NYT is in fact two million women. Two million people is a lot of people to invite to a party. But compared to the approximately 120 million women of marriageable age in the USA, "relatively small number of cases" is a completely accurate description.

Yes, that one or two percentage points tips the number of women living with their husband from (approximately) 51% to 49% -- which is the whole point. World War One lasted for only four years, and the social changes set in motion by women going into the workforce are still taking place today. The invasion of Iraq is a few weeks short of four years old, and with no real sign (just a lot of talk) of it coming to an end any time soon. Why is the Boston Globe so resistant to the idea that it too might have social consequences?

Probably because conservatives, by definition, are conservative, and social changes are disturbing and frightening to them.

We can see where the Boston Globe is coming from:

Taken at face value, that's a pretty disquieting statistic. If society is to flourish and perpetuate itself, it must uphold marriage as a social ideal

Oh really? Says who? Does he really think people won't go to work to put bread on the table if they don't have a wedding ring on their finger?

What it looks like to me is that some pundits and journalists, like Peter Smith of, have found a way of doing investigative journalism that has all the advantages of theft over hard work, with the extra advantage that it isn't illegal.

  1. Start by taking a perfectly responsible, honest, factually-correct newspaper article that discusses facts you disapprove of. Being responsible, it will almost certainly go into details of what facts they are actually talking about: e.g. the NYT story clearly mentions the temporary nature of the separation for women whose husbands are serving in Afghanistan or Iraq, and takes great care not to confuse "living without a husband" from "unmarried".

  2. Accuse the authors of the original story of making extreme claims which they never did. It helps if you attack an article in the NYT or other big commercial newspaper -- your "exposé" of their "malpractice" will still be on the Internet years after the NYT has pulled their article off the free list and made it by purchase only.

  3. Support your claims by tossing the article's own honest disclosures back at them. Take care to imply -- but not actually say -- that the original story never mentioned them.

The more honest the journalist, the more information he gives you to accuse him of dishonesty. Why investigate actual dishonest reporting, when it is so much easier to fling mud at honest reporters?

No comments: