Village Voice Media, too, refused to let statistics on underage prostitution go unexamined—although in VVM’s case, the story hit a little closer to home. VVM-owned Backpage.com, a classified-ad website with an adult-services section, has long been a target of an advocacy organization called the Women’s Funding Network. Last fall, WFN released a study that found that in just six months in 2010, the number of underage girls trafficked through such sites had exploded.

WFN’s spokeswoman told Congress that the number of victims in New York had increased by 20.7 percent; in Minnesota, the increase was “a staggering 64.7 percent.” These very scientific-sounding statistics were dutifully reported in a wide array of news outlets, including The Dallas Morning News, the Detroit Free Press, the Houston Chronicle, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Minnesota Public Radio, and USA Today.

City Pages staff writer Nick Pinto’s LAUREL-worthy exposé “Weird Science,” published in March across the entire VVM chain, revealed that the researchers behind the widely-cited data had calculated the number of trafficking victims by first counting online adult-services ads, and then simply guessing at the ages of the girls in the pictures used to advertise those services. And that was about it.

“It was absolutely farcical,” says VVM executive editor Michael Lacey. And any reporter “would not have had to be a statistician” to recognize that the methodology was laughably flawed—if, that is, they had bothered to ask.

 

More in Darts and Laurels

Darts & Laurels

Read More »

Lauren Kirchner is a freelance writer covering digital security for CJR. Find her on Twitter at @lkirchner