BROOKE GLADSTONE: We're back with On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield with this week's OTM Trend. In Tennessee a home gardener named Rita is using a syringe to inject her zucchini with an organic pesticide. Bob, an Illinois aquarium culturalist, feeds his water fleas by syringe-injecting pureed zucchini into a 55 gallon drum. And a mom named Cristy tells her friends on BabyCradle.com that she uses the same technique to feed strained zucchini to her spoon-averse baby son. Yes, in one of the hottest trends of the new millennium, everywhere you turn nowadays --zucchini and medical syringes are turning up together. You know -- or not. I actually found those examples by doing an internet search for the random combination of "zucchini" and "syringe." The results were almost exclusively about organic gardening, but with a little selective editing by the generally accepted practices of journalism, the zucchini-syringe marriage constitutes a bona fide trend.
KIM WILLIS: It sounds like a cliche to say 3 things makes a trend, but that really is kind of the rule of thumb we look for.
BOB GARFIELD: Kim Willis is a features editor at USA Today which has divined trends in pre-marital cohabitation, sport fishing, raw food diets, teen oral sex, men wearing engagement rings and thousands of other phenomena real and hyped for which the "rule of 3" is the guiding principle if not the actual definition.
KIM WILLIS: We don't think great, we've found 3 examples; we can write a story. It's more - if we can't find 3 examples this is really a trend--
BOB GARFIELD:Well good for them. But of course in a universe in which trillions of events occur in each fraction of a second, 3 favorable examples or 4 or 4,000 don't necessarily mean anything. Yet journalists persist in extrapolating dubious trends from isolated anecdotes, demonstrating not a trend but an immutable constant: the media's ongoing love affair with the fallacy of favorable enumeration. In fact, never mind the "rule of 3," journalism is the only place in the physical universe where one point can determine a line. Jessica Lustig is editor of Details Magazine.
JESSICA LUSTIG: What we are trying to do is, is be entertaining and be timely and respond to things that we're sort of picking up in the culture, and you're right, there's something a bit made up about them and what that is, is taking some scrap of data or information from the news or from cultural mood and then carrying it farther.
BOB GARFIELD:So for instance when somebody at Details noticed a gigantic Calvin Klein billboard prominently featuring in sharp, skimpy underwear relief a man's bulging genitalia--
JESSICA LUSTIG: We ran a piece wondering if this was going to provoke a kind of anxiety in men -- sort of self-consciousness that's been more associated with women till now and has resulted in all sorts of industries like, say, the Wonder Bra to respond to that anxiety.
BOB GARFIELD:So what happens when a magazine like Details, ostensibly the "period of record for all that is hip and happening," decides that the world is ready for Wonder Pants? Well one thing that happens is that the alleged trend may soon be embraced uncritically by other news organizations who do their trend-spotting not in the wild but in the pages of other publications, creating a lost-in-the-funhouse parallel universe of media-validated unreality. USA Today's Kim Willis worries about that all the time.
KIM WILLIS: Because if In Style has written about it, and the Wall Street Journal has written about it, and then USA Today has written about it, then it's this huge trend and everyone in America's doing it -- but often, you know, what's happening is one paper or magazine is seeing the other one's story and then saying well, gee -- maybe we should check this out.
BOB GARFIELD: Oddly, media hype isn't especially influential in the proliferation of genuine trends according to author Malcolm Gladwell.
MALCOLM GLADWELL:Big mass media can induce very transitory, ephemeral changes but if you want to generate real fundamental transformation of behavior, speech, thought -- anything like that -- I think you need to have the kind of face to face, person to person, true viral transmission.
BOB GARFIELD:Gladwell's book, The Tipping Point, investigates that moment of critical mass when an extremely localized fashion or fad begins behaving like a communicable disease infecting the general population. This, he says, happens independently of the media. What genuine trends and bogus trends do have in common, though, is their provenance in tiny percentage of the population.
MALCOLM GLADWELL: You read those stories, and when they proclaim a broad trend you understand that what they're saying is that this is the kind of thing that those of us who would like to emulate the lifestyles of the approximately 1,000 people who we're describing in this story, you know, this is what they're doing and do with that information as you will.
BOB GARFIELD:The hip-obsessed, in other words, writing about the truly hip for the wannabe's of hipness. Journalist Michelle Goldberg has played the game herself.
MICHELLE GOLDBERG: As a freelance writer, I understand why writers create these stories, especially people who aren't staff writers, because it's so easy to sell. And so if you need to make a paycheck, you need to just -- it's kind of like playing that game Concentration or something. You need to find 3 matching things and put them together, and you kind of create the narrative around that.
BOB GARFIELD:But Goldberg also sees the dangers. Apart from the obvious risk of misrepresenting reality -- I mean are men really rushing to wear engagement rings? -- there's the more pernicious danger of ignoring significant trends by obsessing on superficial trivial ones. This was brought home to her while serving major newspapers for their economic coverage in the wake of 9/11.
MICHELLE GOLDBERG: I was absolutely stunned. One of the first cover stories about this economic mess in the New York Times Magazine is about the future of Gucci. Meanwhile you have to dig to see that homelessness is sky-rocketing in this country. You see proportionally much, much, much less feature coverage of how people are dealing with, say, losing a job of 30 years and finding themselves on food stamps than you do with the shattered dreams of a 24 year old who can no longer get a 50,000 dollar a year job for making flash animations.
BOB GARFIELD:Maybe that's because trend spotters are perpetually in search of something "hot," and there is nothing "hot" about lost service industry jobs. Unfortunately there is a fundamental disconnect between serious exploration of societal problems and the glib pursuit of "hotness." The pitiful fact is it's hard for many publications to consider the unemployed, for instance, unless they're kneeling in their back yards tending to their tiny home gardens, shooting up their zucchinis. [MUSIC]
"Surrey with the Fringe (beginning)"
by Miles Davis Quintet