The Slate writers have a point. Are these stories ridiculously overinflated? Yes. Could the reporter have done a better job of gathering facts and data? Yes. But are these stories absolutely useless and irredeemable? No. The reporters (and editors) in these cases are guilty of bad execution, not bad ideas. The reporters were curious about a particular issue, but went about finding support in the wrong ways.
I think there are ways to effectively report on a trend story that informs readers without misleading them. A better way to report the trend would be to choose a single, large event and report on that event individually. National Public Radio did a good job of this in a recent story about Glenn Beck. In “When Beck Attacks, Someone Could Get Hurt,” the reporter talks about Frances Fox Piven and her particular history with Beck. Although it would be very easy, the reporter doesn’t try to generalize what happened to Piven. The focus is on one case, and the story provides evidence that directly backs up what she goes through. She has hundreds of e-mails in which people threaten her life, and these don’t appear until after Beck discusses her on his show. I think this story is a good example of how to provide valid evidence of a trend.
In the case of the library story, I think it’s hard to ignore the Alachua County Library District’s own report. I don’t think the problem is the report itself but the officials who try to attribute the increases to the economic downturn. The reporter probably could have tried to come up with other reasons for the increases, but it was really attractive (and easy) to attribute the upturn to the bad economy.