Media behaving badly

The flurry of stories about spring break pandemonium were based on a flimsy Internet poll.


Tracy Clark-Flory
May 31, 2006 4:04AM (UTC)

Stop the presses. This year's media frenzy over young women's bad behavior during spring break was wildly exaggerated? So says the Washington Post's Howard Kurtz. The surge of articles about young women's dangerous sexual exploits and TV news segments with helpful illustrations of the tanned, bikini-clad women in question was spurred, he argues, by an unscientific Internet poll. The ones behaving badly, Kurtz says, are the journalists who -- drunk on the promised popularity of sexy stories like this one -- ignored the flimsiness of the survey's findings.

The report was released by the American Medical Association in March and found that 74 percent of female college students or graduates under age 35 "use drinking as an excuse for outrageous behavior." It also found that 57 percent "agree being promiscuous is a way to fit in"; 12 percent "felt forced or pressured into sex"; and three out of five know friends who engaged in unprotected sex during spring break. Broadsheet previously reported that former Wonkette Ana Marie Cox zeroed in on the report in a piece for Time titled "The Myth About Girls Going Wild." But while Cox's critique was political ("Maybe it would be progress if we had a definition of femininity expansive enough to include shaking one's thing without raising one's top -- so that girls could go a little wild without having to rely on what we used to refer to as the 'sorority girl's mating call': 'I am soooo drunk.'"), Kurtz attacks the scientific weakness of the survey.

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Rather than relying on a randomly selected pool of respondents, Kurtz says, the Internet survey was entirely voluntary. What's more, only 27 percent of the respondents had been on spring break (meaning the rest were gleaning their knowledge from late-night infomercials or MTV). "I think it's irresponsible to put that in the public domain," Cliff Zukin, president of the American Association for Public Opinion Research, told the Post. "There is no scientific basis. I don't trust those numbers ... It's silly and it shouldn't have seen the light of day."

In the poll's press release, AMA president J. Edward Hill makes valid points about the dangers of binge drinking among college students. But the association's sloppiness in presenting this poll as scientific evidence is pretty shocking. Richard Yoast, director of the AMA's Department of Alcohol, Tobacco and Other Drug Abuse told the Post, "In the future, we're going to be more careful." The results, however, were widely reported by mainstream outlets CNN, CBS, NBC and Fox.

Interestingly, the survey found that 84 percent of respondents "thought images of college girls partying during spring break may contribute to an increase in females' reckless behavior"; likewise, 86 percent "agreed these images may contribute to dangerous behaviors by males toward women." Kind of like the images accompanying those news reports? If the respondents are right, maybe next year this will be a legit news story.

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Tracy Clark-Flory

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