A story on page A14 of today’s New York Times appears to be at war with itself. Or perhaps the editor and writer are at war over what’s really important in the story. As this almost ludicrous tale unwinds, I think we’ll see an ideological prejudice fail at twisting a report into something it’s not—that is, for those readers who venture beyond the first three paragraphs of the article.
The story, by Sam Roberts, concerns a study of men and women ages 15 to 44 that was conducted by the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) using 2002 data. NCHS is part of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).
The headline and the first paragraph serve as a warning to youthful damsels and gentlemen everywhere that cohabitation does not lead to marriage:
Study Finds Cohabiting Doesn’t Make a Union Last
Couples who live together before they get married are less likely to stay married, a new study has found. But their chances improve if they were already engaged when they began living together.
The likelihood that a marriage would last for a decade or more decreased by six percentage points if the couple had cohabited first, the study found.
In 13 of the remaining 14 paragraphs, Roberts quotes experts who disprove the point of the lead or cites other statistics from the study that are far more interesting than the fact that 6% more people divorce within a decade of marriage if they lived together before the blessed ceremony.
Roberts first uses two experts to deftly dismantle the premise of the lead. Michigan professor Pamela Smock points out that 6% is not that much. Then Cornell professor Kelly Musick digs deeper into the statistics to figure out what the body of facts in the survey is really telling us: “The figures suggest to me that cohabitation is still a pathway to marriage for many college graduates, while it may be an end in itself for many less educated women.”
There are so many interesting facts that Roberts tells us, including what to this former journalist was the real headline and lead: “that the proportion of women in their late 30s who had ever cohabited had doubled in 15 years, to 61 percent.”
Now the fact that cohabitation is now the norm and that it’s happened over the course of a mere 15 years: that to me is sizzling hot news. The fact that a mere 6% more of former cohabitants get divorced than those who waited until marriage to live together seems trivial in a world in which one-third of all marriages break up by the tenth year, also an amazing fact. For more amazing facts, read the story or go to the study.
The obvious question: why are the headline and lead of this story—the only well-read parts—so at odds with the rest of the article? It’s as if someone imposed the misleading headline on both the story and the facts.
We know it’s not NCHS or CDC. The study does not give any special significance or lead role to the 6% statistic anywhere in its abstract, executive summary or introduction. Moreover, neither the NCHS nor the CDC has yet issued a news release on the study (in which this statistic could have served as a lead or headline). Check out the news archives if you don’t believe me. It seems strange not to issue a news release, but I’m guessing that the federal government in this age of faith does not want to appear to be undermining marriage by stating that cohabitation is the norm.
We’ll never know, but I’m guessing that Roberts’ editor/editors and perhaps the headline writer, too, forced the misleading opening on the writer. And he/she/they did it for ideological reasons: to lead with the fact that promoted the advantages of waiting until marriage to live with your beloved, even if that advantage is minimal.
Most people only read the headline and first few paragraphs of news stories, so a good part of the literate world will get the wrong idea of what this survey says. They may never get to the earth-shaking news that cohabitation is now the new normal, which is to say that many more people try it than don’t sometime in their lives.
It was such a tactic by a writer or editor that 20 years ago created the completely false myth that women who don’t marry by 30 probably won’t. Behind both these manipulations stands the idea that marriage is the preferred state for all, all the time. It’s clear that the people disagree.