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?

  • Chris Rooney

    “That word reports ‘only’ the expectation of the speaker…”

  • Discussing expectations has become standard fare in the business press. When earnings come out for a firm the article is more likely to discuss how well the results matched the analyst’s “consensus” rather than how well the firm is doing from a business point of view.

    It is interesting to see how the stock price gets affected by these reports. Generally when the news is good the stock goes down because it missed expectations. This happens so often I’m inclined to believe there is some manipulation going on. The analysts float an impossible number which boosts the price then sell on the hype. The fact that many brokerage firms are now combined with banking and trading makes the possibilities for mischief much greater. Henry Blodgett may have been unique in that he was one of the few to get caught.

  • Come on, Jeff, they are journalism students! If they don’t all read some blog or other, then I submit they are not serious students. Similarly, you’d expect every one to read a newspaper or other print journalism.

  • Through engaging students about this subject during the Newhouse New Media Series I have found that the reality of student utilization of these media is not in line with the sentiment of new media being the domain of high school and college students. One participant came up to me after a session on blogs and said, “People expect us to know all about this stuff, but how will we if nobody is teaching us?” I believe there is a misconception that because of widespread use of tools like Facebook, MySpace and popular (celebrity or sports) blogs, there is a ubiquitous comfort with embracing these tools for creative expression and/or tactical implementation.

  • “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. ”

    Her prediction, or the prediction of no one. It could be that the “only” is there out of a pre-conceived notion on the writer’s part that blogs aren’t infuential and the word “only” is used to force an interpretation of the statistics.

    If this is the case, then “only” is implying a straw man, without actually bringing up the straw man argument. ( The Invisible Straw Man ? )

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  • I concur with one of the earlier posters that this number also excludes the other modes of blogging inclusive of myspace and facebook like material as well as blogs that are almost indistinguishable from online newspaper content… are are such content.

  • “People expect us to know all about this stuff, but how will we if nobody is teaching us?”

    I run into that question a lot. It transcends age. The internet culture and the new economy are driven by people who aren’t doing it for others’ expectations and aren’t waiting for someone to teach it to them.

    Making it about age is lazy and cynical. There are lots of young people who can’t figure out why getting the right grades and attending the right schools and interning at the (traditionally) right businesses has given them any sort of pass to the front rows. The answer is in the question.