Sunday, October 9, 2011

Good Journalistic Advice from the Howard 100 News Team

For those with satellite radio subscriptions who listen to the Howard Stern Show, the Howard 100 News team actually gives a solid piece of journalistic advice, albeit in a humorous fashion. The tag line they use in one of their promos is "If you mother says she loves you, check her sources."

While I take it on faith that my mother loves me, after all she is giving first hand testimony to that fact, when it comes to news-worthy leads, I check everything. Recently, for example, It was suggested that I write a news story about October 5th being the most popular birthday in the USA by the News Director of the Yahoo! Contributor Network. He generally provides me with pretty solid leads, sometimes offering me contact info. for specific news-worthy leads and suggesting article topics that he'd like to pitch to the Yahoo! News front page folks.

Sometimes they pan out and sometimes they don't (and sometimes they require extraordinary effort on my part: "If you can find someone who was present at 'X' event 60 years ago, we'd like to publish an interview with them."). That's great, I am thankful and lucky to have such a good relationship with the person who decides whether to pay me for an article. I pursue the leads offered to the best of my ability whether I think they are likely to be profitable to me or not, often investing many hours in research before I really know whether there is a story there or not.

The October 5th birthday story was no different. I accepted the challenge and went to work, assuming that the premise was true. Indeed, at first it seemed that every web reference agreed. October 5th is the most popular date for birthdays in the USA because it coincides with a New Year's Eve conception, they said. Hmmm. I was born on October 2nd, which is certainly within the big part of the bell curve for those babies conceived on the same date as those born on October 5th. So I asked my mother, "Is it likely that I was conceived on New Year's Eve?"

"Yes," she replied that she was almost certain of that.

I noticed, however, that one source was cited by most of the websites and news stations which were reporting October 5th as the most popular birthday. Those that didn't cite a specific source had specific language or numbers that were too similar to those cited by that same, singular source to be coincidental.

Furthermore, the data upon which that original source based its claim was unavailable. It would have been easy to cite the same source used by such news outlets as NBC4-TV out of Washington, D.C., and all the others, but one source without the backing evidence just doesn't pass my standard of reliability even though that was the storyline requested by the News Director. So I asked myself, who might have actual birth record data and statistics? The government, for one. So I did a search restricted to .gov  sites and came up with the CDC data contained in my report which was inconclusive but tended to cast further doubt on the October 5th meme.

Looking further, I found a 2006 study by a Harvard professor who listed all 366 days of the year (including leap year's February 29th) in order of popularity, based on a study of many years of birth records. His data was more in line with the CDC data and was quite different than the source used by almost every website that talked about the most popular birthday in the U.S. I could have, and should have, gone one step further and called the Harvard professor who did the study and asked to see his data for a solid answer to the question, but by this time, my deadline was fast approaching and it didn't seem possible to make the contact and review the details of the study in time to publish the story at all.

With three sources in hand, but without the raw data to confirm their findings, I cannot say definitively upon which date the most popular birthday falls. I can say, however, that the October 5th date is pretty doubtful, and that's the story I went with. You can read it in its entirety at Yahoo! News by clicking the link below.

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