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Who gets wedding announcements in the Times?

I was flipping through the paper yesterday and noticed something which I think is a bit of innumeracy–although I don’t have all the facts at my disposal so I can’t be sure. It came in an item by Robert Woletz, society editor of the New York Times, in response to the following letter from Max Sarinsky (click here and scroll down):

The heavy majority of couples typically featured in the Sunday wedding announcements either attended elite universities, hold corporate management positions or have parents with corporate management positions. It’s nice to learn about the nuptials of the privileged, but Times readers would benefit from learning about a more representative sampling of weddings in our diverse city.

I [Sarinksy] am curious as to how editors select which announcements to publish, and why editors don’t make a sustained effort to include different types of couples.

Woletz replied:

The Weddings/Celebrations pages are truly open to everyone, and The Times persistently encourages couples from all backgrounds to submit their stories. And they do, typically in the hundreds during the peak wedding season.

Like any other part of The Times, however, the section’s editors and writers must identify and put before its readers the most interesting stories. Given the finite amount of space and personnel that The Times can devote to reporting on these couples, only a representative sample of what has been submitted appears in the Weddings/Celebrations pages on any given week.

The only truly fair way to select one submission over another is on the basis of achievement. This paper makes no secret of the fact that it is ever on the lookout for those who seem destined to play a role in advancing the sciences, law, the arts, engineering, communications and other fields. When the daughter of a seamstress and a line cook graduates at the top of her medical school class at Yale or Stanford, or creates a well-received play or innovative Web site, that represents an achievement for both the subject and her parents. It also tells the story of how one generation of this nation of immigrants builds on the next.

Yes, readers are also likely to see items about the unions of sons and daughters of corporate managers, and even a few who can trace their roots to the landing of the Mayflower. But you will also find police officers, prosecutors and military personnel. And you will encounter those like Jennifer Keen and Paul Sousa, a formerly homeless couple who turned their lives around (“Vows,” June 28, 2009). What Ms. Keen and Mr. Sousa achieved was worthy of recognition, and demonstrated that the definition of achievement is ever-changing.

As I said, I don’t have the data at hand and am willing to be corrected, but for now I’ll have to say, No, I don’t buy it.

Really, how often do they have wedding announcements where “the daughter of a seamstress and a line cook graduates at the top of her medical school class at Yale,” etc?

Here’s what we have this week:

– Occupations of parents not given
– Parents are nurse and nurse’s aide
– Parents are a mechanical engineer, a factory worker, and a farmer
– Parents are a chemist, a saleswoman, a director of a private school, and the chairman of a technology company
– Parents are a professor and a partner in a Washington law firm
– Parents’ occupations not given
– Parents’ occupations not given
– Parents are a bank manager and a partner in a Greenwich law firm
– Parents are another lawyer, a federal judge, an education and training coordinator for a social service agency, and an owner of a technology company
– Parents are a gastroenterologist, a director of alumni relations at a college, the senior assistant rector at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in New Canaan, Connecticut, and a partner in a New York law firm
– Parents are a rheumatologist, an assistant controller at a hotel, and a technician who investigates buildings for mold
– Parents are a managing partner at a law firm, the director of psychological services at a hospital, and the owner of a gold refinery business
– Parents are a secretary, the hair stylist for CBS Morning News, and two law partners, this time in Pittsburgh
– Parents are a business contract negotiator at Lockheed, a staff developer at a public school, a dental assistant, and a Philadelphia lawyer
– Parents are the owner of of a commercial real estate firm in Scarsdale, a vice president of a private school, a mortgage broker, and a real estate executive who is on the board of overseers of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine
– Parents are on the boards of the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, Florida, the University of Miami, and the Kravis Center for the Performing Arts in West Palm Beach. Also two dentists
– Parents are the vice president for technical services for Donna Karan, a real estate broker, and the owners of a store
– Parents are a director of stock sales to institutional investors at a New York bank and a neurosurgeon
– Parents are the editor and publisher of a business magazine, a partner in a fund that invests in distressed debt, and a descendant of “Smith” of Smith, Barney & Company
– Parents’ occupations not given
– Parents are a vice president at a marketing and business development firm in New York, a surgeon at the Cleveland Clinic, and the president of an investment firm
– Parents are a partner in a New York law firm, the president of a nonprofit organization, a radiologist, and a physicist
. . .

OK, you get the picture. Some inspiring rags-to-riches stories but not many.didn’t know
.
Don’t get me wrong here. I’m in no position to complain about the Times’s choice of wedding announcements. I just wish they’d be more honest about it. Dramatic stories are great, but they don’t seem to get enough to fill the society pages, so they have to thrown in a mix of doctors, lawyers, media figures, and miscellaneous professionals. Most of whom have parents who did pretty well themselves. Picking out the occasional line cook, police officer, or whatever, and describing the pages as “truly open to everyone.” doesn’t seem to capture the overall pattern.

Again, I’m not saying they should change their rules. I teach at an expensive private university that surely draws more than its share of students from wealthy families. I just find it annoying when people try to obscure the statistics by bringing up unrepresentative special cases.

11 Comments

  1. zbicyclist says:

    "only a representative sample of what has been submitted appears"

    This is a good illustration of the difference between the common meaning of representative sample and the meaning a sampling expert would attach to it.

  2. tom brakke says:

    Prior to the financial crisis, I tracked the representation of investment types in the announcement (in a simple, non-scientific study). Counting couples or their parents that fit that description, it amounted to more than half of the announcements. Plus, many times a number of people in one announcement were in "the business."

  3. Bill Jefferys says:

    The Manchester (NH) Union-Leader is upfront about one of their criteria. No gays need apply. (Local story last evening).

  4. Paul Thomas says:

    That sort of skew may be due to the fact that it's the New York Times and a larger portion of the wealthy are in finance since the concentration of finance jobs and payoffs are large.

  5. subdee says:

    Heh. My parents' wedding announcement was in the Times. My grandfather was a Times editor.

  6. Hamdan Azhar says:

    There's a subtle assumption behind the original question, one that's only furthered by the paper's response and by this post. Most announcements are of highly educated well-off people and the natural inference seems to be that this is the result of a selection mechanism implemented by the editors. However, I think self-selection is the more likely culprit.
    Who gets wedding announcements in the Times? Obviously, a subset of people who submit wedding announcements to the Times. My guess would be that this latter population is incredibly skewed with respect to "privilege." These are people who most likely see some similarity between themselves and the families they see profiled on a regular basis. At the bare minimum, these are probably readers of the Times, or people to whom an NYT wedding announcement would mean something. Isn't it obvious that this is clearly a self-selected elite group?

    I'm sure there's data out there on demographic characteristics of regular NYT readers. One can easily look at a random sample of wedding announcements and compute summary statistics for that group. I doubt the latter group is substantially more privileged than the former; it probably is pretty close to a representative sample.

    P.S. What's interesting is that I think Max Sarinsky realizes all of this. His suggestion that editors "make a sustained effort to include different types of couples" would have editors proactively seek out non-stereotypical couples, the kind who by my estimation do not submit wedding announcements routinely, with the understanding that privileged people might be interested to read about the weddings and mating practices of average people.

  7. Steve Sailer says:

    I find the NYT wedding announcements useful. When I'm trying to look up information about a person now in the news, I'll often stumble upon an NYT wedding announcement from a decade or two ago that gives lots of useful information about that individual and his or her connections. In contrast, I seldom find helpful wedding announcements from other newspapers. So, yes, the NYT wedding people do do a pretty good job of identifying future newsmakers.

  8. Andrew Gelman says:

    Hamdan:

    Good point about the selection of who sends in their wedding announcements in the first place.

    Steve:

    I'm not denying that the Times wedding announcements feature current and future bigshots. I just thought the bit about the seamstress and the line cook was pretty silly. Why not just be honest and admit that most of the people in their listings come from pretty comfortable backgrounds? It seemed to me innumerate of them to argue otherwise based on a few unusual cases.

  9. Elisabeth Julia Simo says:

    Answer to your question: me! Which does absolutely nothing to debunk your suspicions.

  10. Steve Sailer says:

    A better defense for the NYT would be to say there is far more competition to get wedding announcements in the NYT than in any other paper in the country, which implies two things: We inevitably cause more disappointment among the many who don't make it, but also that we seem to be doing a pretty good job of picking those who get in.

  11. kiers says:

    I met a traveler from an antique land
    Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
    Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
    Half sunk, a shattered scrip of the "NYT weddings announcements" lies, whose picture of frown,
    And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
    Tell that its photographer well those passions read
    Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
    The camera that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
    And on the caption these words appear:
    “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
    Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
    Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
    Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
    The lone and level sands stretch far away.

    Ahhhh vanity thy name is "rat race"