Keep Calm And Make Up A Trend Story

Monday, November 23, 2009
I don't love trend stories. Usually I strongly dislike them. I read a whole article headed "the growing backlash against overparenting" and was not, at any point, informed of how we know said backlash is growing. Nor was I convinced that there is a rash of overparenting in the first place.

The danger of writing things like this without any sources is that you get a reader who is in the demographic you are writing about and then that reader knows you are making things up:

By the time the frenzy had reached its peak, colleges were installing "Hi, Mom!" webcams in common areas, and employers like Ernst & Young were creating "parent packs" for recruits to give Mom and Dad, since they were involved in negotiating salary and benefits.

My guess is that I was in college when the frenzy of overparenting allegedly reached its peak. I have heard of people who got to college and didn't know how to cut a piece of chicken, make ice cubes, or clean up spilled water. I knew one girl whose father moved to New York from Florida so she could go to college and still live "at home" ( The student was actually very self sufficient despite her father's attempt at control and spent a lot of time trying to break free of him). But all of those examples were the exceptions that proved the rule. Almost everyone I met was normally parented. And I have NEVER heard of these alleged "Hi, Mom!" webcams. Nor can I think of any student who would appreciate such an innovation. Really, Time? You're going to just state something like that exisits without even citing the college that installed these things in the common room? We're you just hoping that no recent college graduates would read the article and question the veracity of that?

One of the biggest repeat offender of trend stories is the New York Times. The Times' offenses tend to be particularly egregious because the stories tend to be rich people trends. Tights for men! Plastic surgery at a spa! But today the Times brough new meaning to the idea of repeat offender.

"To propel themselves through this economic downturn, media and advertising executives are turning to a phrase meant to soothe another troubled populace: the British during World War II."

That's the lede of a short story about "Keep Calm and Carry On" posters. It ran in today's New York Times.

"This can't be new, " I thought when I read it. "I've read a trend story about these posters months ago."So I looked in New York magazine. Nope not there. Did I read it in the New Yorker? Unlikely. And then I remembered. I read it in the New York Times Magazine. That's the magaizne that's sold as an insert to the New York Times. That's right. This newspaper already wrote about this.

For example, when red posters bearing the sans-serif slogan "Keep Calm and Carry On" underneath a simple crown icon started catching on in Britain a few years back, Bex Lewis knew their provenance. Now an associate lecturer in history and media studies at the University of Winchester, Lewis wrote her Ph.D. thesis on British propaganda posters devised for the home front during World War II. The "Keep Calm" poster, meant to be distributed in the event of a German invasion, was extremely obscure for many decades. So she was interested, she recalls, to see it turning into "sort of a consumer item."

This story is actually about how the poster's slogan has been changed, which is a more interesting story and somewhat more legit than "it's a recession! It's a trend!" But the point is, the Times already wrote a story about these posters catching on. And the story was published in July. So are the Times editors sure this is a new trend? Are there numbers? Anything other than a few pithy quotes to make sure they should write about this poster again?

Nah. That would require reporting.

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Written Pyramids is a blog written by a journalist living and working in Washington D.C.

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