The problem with ‘only’

A journalism class at NYU surveyed students there and found that 44 percent read blogs. Interesting fact. What does it mean?

In the press release they put out and the story about it in the school paper, the instructor, department chair Brooke Kroeger, expresses surprise. Quoting the story:

The press release said blogs are targeted at today’s youth but “the fry aren’t taking the bait.” Kroeger said she didn’t expect only 44 percent of the “hip, urban, connected, downtown” crowd to read blogs.

So that’s how this news is presented: “only” 44 percent.

The student reporter emailed me and this is what I say in the story:

Jeff Jarvis, a professor at CUNY Graduate School of Journalism and creator of the blog BuzzMachine, disagreed.

“It’s not a surprising finding to me,” Jarvis said.

He referred to a study done by the Pew Internet and American Life Project, a nonprofit and nonpartisan research group, which found that “Eight million American adults say they have created blogs; blog readership jumped 58 percent in 2004 and now stands at 27 percent of internet users.”

“That would mean that students compared to the population as a whole are heavy users of blogs,” Jarvis said.

And there’s the problem with “only.” That word reports only the expectation of the speaker; it says the fact was less than her prediction. It’s a dangerous word. Reporters use it all the time and all too often: The candidate got “only” n percent of the vote (that is, less than the writer thought he should get. In college, I wrote a paper on how Ed Muskie won the New Hampshire primary but got less than the reporter thought he should get and so he was declared a loser).

So who says that 44 percent is small? Who says that’s surprising? Who is to judge that the fry aren’t taking the bait? What other comparisons can be made? For example, how many of those students read newspapers? How many watch the evening network news?