Really, LA Times? 11% of Americans truly think HTML is a disease?

Apparently not everyone learned their lesson from the 'IE users are dumb' hoax from a few years ago, and media continue to report "survey results" from press releases as valid data.

The latest questionable "survey" to gain media traction is one purportedly sponsored by a British coupon site. According to a post by Salvador Rodriguez at the Los Angeles Times: "A recent study found that many Americans are lost when it comes to tech-related terms, with 11% saying that they thought HTML — a language that is used to create websites — was a sexually transmitted disease."

Um, really? The post cites a company press release, sent out by 10 Yetis PR -- which, the watchdog site iMediaEthics.org notes, "lists its work in viral marketing and stunts on its website."

The LA Times story had no link to survey results and no details on methodology beyond the number of people who were reported to have responded. Despite that, several other media outlets picked up the story including Time magazine, CNET and Global News Canada. The Atlanta Journal Constitution posted the survey results while acknowledging doubts about the survey, yet concluded their piece with: "But let's say the survey actually is legit and 11 percent of Americans really do think HTML is an STD." WHY? WHY WOULD WE SAY THAT?

After being called out by Art Science Research Laboratory's iMediaEthics, the LA Times got a statement saying the PR firm assured them it was "100% genuine, and it's a valid survey." Apparently the survey was conducted "over email over the course of seven days." Rodriguez also added a link to the results -- a two-page Google document that still has no details beyond "study of 2,392 US nationals, all aged 18 and over."

There are no details about how respondents were chosen so readers can decide if this is likely a random sample or whether the sample accurately reflects the US population. There's not even information about when this survey supposedly took place. Sorry, but "over email" is not a survey methodology any more than "I used a computer" explains how someone analyzed research results. (There are, however, some pretty blue stripes on the Google Doc text.)

Maybe the survey occurred; maybe it didn't. I can't say for sure whether it's a hoax, but I certainly don't have enough information to report that it's true. And as far as I can tell, neither does anyone else.

So if you run across that silly headline or it comes up in conversation, be advised that all we know for sure is that it's someone's (sadly successful) attempt to generate buzz. We can't tell from the resulting publicity how many people are willing to relay whatever press release comes across their desk as fact, either. But it's definitely more than 1.

See more in the Data Avenger series.

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