W. Joseph Campbell

NYTimes blog embraces ‘March Madness’ myth, claims ‘Zero Productivity Zone’

In Debunking, Media myths, New York Times on March 15, 2012 at 2:22 pm

The productivity myth of March Madness has kicked around for years, apparently immune to the most thorough of debunkings.

As the NCAA men’s basketball tournament opened today, the New York Times college sports blog, “The Quad,” embraced the myth with a headline warning that U.S. workplaces were entering the “Zero Productivity Zone.”

“It is officially time to celebrate the two days a year when American productivity goes in the toilet and it’s a good thing,” a post at the blog declared, adding:

“Thursday and Friday are like a little escape hatch from the usual grind, with N.C.A.A. tournament games going non-stop and while the Puritans of the business world can wring their bony hands over paying people who are suddenly obsessed with the fate of Virginia Commonwealth, the proper response is: tough noogies.”

Sure, some of that’s meant tongue in cheek. Or faintly snarky.

But, still: Media Myth Alert is tempted to say “tough noogies” in calling out a blog post that so blithely repeats the dubious claim and contributes to perpetuating a hardy seasonal myth. And one that does so without data or documentation.

A quick LexisNexis search finds other media outlets indulging in the productivity myth, too.

The Christian Science Monitor, for example, reported the other day:

“According some employment specialists, the next two or three weeks often rank low for productivity, as employees either keep one eye on the scoreboard or just try to cope with less sleep. Even leading up to the second round, which starts Thursday, many employees spend a lot of company time ‘researching’ teams to compete in their office pools or in ‘bracketology’ showdowns online.”

To support such assertions the Monitor article turned to estimates by the Chicago outplacement firm, Challenger, Gray & Christmas, which over the years has propelled the myth with outlandish claims about productivity loss.

This year, the firm is a bit coy about projecting productivity losses. It claims in a news release that U.S. employers today and Friday may end up paying $175 million in wages to workers distracted by the games.

But Challenger proceeds to dismiss its own estimate, saying it’s not to be taken seriously.

On the second page of its news release, Challengers advises taking the estimate “with a grain of salt, as it is meant to be a tongue-in-cheek look at how technology continues to blur the line between our professional and personal lives.

“Ultimately,” the statement says, “March Madness will not even register a blip on the nation’s economic radar and even the smallest company will survive the month without any impact on their bottom line.”

Not even a blip.

Which makes one wonder why the company offers such outlandish estimates in the first place, given that they inject fresh life into a myth that deserves disposal on the slag heap of statistical imprecision. Is it so eager for free publicity?

And as Carl Bialik, the Wall Street Journal’s Numbers Guy, asked in a column seven years ago, “why does the press report studies whose authors don’t take them that seriously?”

Why, indeed?

No doubt because they’re simplistic and easily accessible. As I point out in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, among the most tenacious media myths are those that “minimize or negate complexity” and “offer simplistic and misleading interpretations instead.”


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