Backgrounder: Adjusting the One-Sided Data from the Media

March 7, 2017

by Richard McGowan, Ph.D.
I recently received an e-mail from Arthur O. Sulzberger, Jr., the publisher of the New York Times, to which I subscribe. He knows that the media are under attack from President Trump and he wrote to ‘defend’ the media and “assert the value of quality journalism,” since, after all, “the truth matters, now more than ever.” As well, “the truth…is also incredibly hard to get to.” Nonetheless, Sulzberger states, “we remain undeterred in our efforts to reveal and report the facts with integrity and courage.”

Sulzberger likely had in mind attacks on the media for ‘false news.’ Of course, if ‘false news’ is reported in the popular media—and there is some truth to the charge—then the New York Times and other media outlets have failed in their mission.

However, another problem, a larger one, has little to do with ‘false news’ and more to do with ‘convenient’ less than complete coverage. The problem reminds me of a silly children’s joke: a young student asked the teacher, “Would you punish me for something I didn’t do?

“Heavens, no,” replied the teacher.

“Good,” said the child. “I didn’t do my homework.”

That joke, in a nutshell, captures the press and media in general. They don’t do all their homework. Examples abound. The New York Times article, “Is a Teen Moody? Or Depressed?” in the ‘Science Times,’ February 14, 2017, began with this sentence: “The hardest questions pediatricians must routinely ask teenagers at checkups are those about depression and suicide.” After an observation about depression in teens, the article stated: “The trend toward more depression was steeper in girls than it was in boys.”

The article later asked, “Why was the prevalence of depression increasing, and why was it more intense among girls?” The article also observed that “suicide is the second leading cause of death in adolescents 15 to 19, second only to accidents…” and that “suicide in children from 10 to 14 had increased to the point” where risk of death by suicide and by traffic accident were the same.

The article concluded by quoting the American Academy of Pediatricians: “Suicide risk can only be reduced, not eliminated, and risk factors provide no more than guidance.”

Were I the parent of a daughter, I’d be very concerned. To use the language of feminism, the article directed my gaze to girls. What about boys and depression and suicide?

An astronomical difference exists in the suicide rate between boys and girls, even if the difference went undisclosed. The Center for Disease Control reports: “Of the reported suicides in the 10 to 24 age group, 81% of the deaths were males and 19% were females. Girls, however, are more likely to report attempting suicide than boys.” [https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/suicide/youth_suicide.html ]

So, yes, depression is more prevalent in girls, but boys are, far and away, suicide victims, not girls. That fact would be very useful to know for parents of boys. And really, how hard is it to get and include? Truth may be “incredibly hard to get,” but I found the data in 6 minutes.

The lack of information regarding the young male suicide rate does not suggest integrity and courage on the part of the New York Times.

I do not wish to single out the New York Times with neglecting homework, or, heaven forefend, the lack of inclusion. TIME magazine had a cover story on “Anxiety, Depression, and the American Adolescent” in its November 7, 2016 issue. The cover featured a female teen. The story had accounts from Faith-Ann, Phoebe, Nora, Tommy, Alison, and a snippet for Josh. The article showed a graph: 19.5% of girls compared to 5.8% of boys are likely to experience depression. The article included a brief discussion of suicide; it provided no data on suicide by sex.

The media, by and large, report accurately, but the information is woefully incomplete, often excluding relevant information when the information disturbs the story line.

The media’s handling of the “Black Lives Matter” movement is another perfect example: the movement may be built on incomplete coverage. Data on arrest-related deaths show that 42% are white, 31% are black, and around 20% are Hispanic. Blacks, who comprise 13 % of the population, commit 46% of the homicides; with regard to interracial violence, Table 42, Personal Crimes of Violence in the Bureau of Justice Statistics (https://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/cvus/previous/cvus42.pdf ) has data from 1996 to 2007. In 2007, 3,262,660 violent offenses against whites were reported, of which  13.3 % were committed by black, or 433,933 violent offenses; 562,470   violent offenses against blacks were reported , of which 9.9%  were committed by whites, or  55,684 violent offenses.
By raw numbers alone, blacks commit 7.8 times as many violent offenses against whites.  Were demographic profiles also used, with blacks being approximately 15% of the population and whites around 70%, the figures are worse by about a factor of 5. More recent data for 2012-2013 show that blacks committed approximately 560,600 violent crimes against white but conversely, whites committed around 99,500 violent crimes against blacks.
Why do the data go unreported? What purpose does it serve to tell less than the full truth? Would the fact that more whites than blacks are killed by police help race relations or hurt race relations? Would the data on interracial violent crime hinder race relations and bring bigots out in force? Is truth supposed to be reported only if it helps a certain political position?

In the New York Times Review of Books, February 26, 2017, two books about death at the hands of the police are reviewed. One point made in the review was that “police kill African-Americans at more than double their share of the population…” No data were provided regarding the rates of violent crimes committed by the races. Would the data not help defuse the situation of race relations in America? Are progressive political ends more important to media outlets than truth?

Coverage of the recent vandalism to Jewish cemeteries is another case in point. Little data was presented in USA Today in its February 20 edition, right after the vandalism in St. Louis, and in its February 27 edition, when the vandalism in Philadelphia occurred. The New York Times did better. It included the data: 664 incidents of hate crimes with an anti-Jewish bias occurred in 2015, down 9% from an earlier year but up from 2014. However, what do the 664 incidents represent? What is the full context?

Anyone who retrieves the data can see what it means: more hate crimes are committed against the Jewish population than the Islamic population. [ https://ucr.fbi.gov/hate-crime/2015/tables-and-data-declarations/1tabledatadecpdf ] Muslims suffered 257 incidents. Since the Muslim population is about half as many as the Jewish population, a person could expect around 320 incidents were hate crimes proportional.
When I ask my students which religion has the most hate crimes directed at it, they typically say, “Muslims.” They read the papers and respond with the popular narrative, not the correct narrative.

Today’s, March 1, STAR had a story on the “Plight of Women in ’17,’ by way of USA Today. Among the concerns was equal pay for women. In fact, the STAR printed this sentence in 1996: “The National Longitudinal Survey of Youth compared people aged 27 to 33 who never had a child and found that women earned 98 percent of men’s wages.”

Newspapers typically ask why policies are not more generous with regard to maternity leave, as though fathers do not exist.

But enough. I believe the point has been made. The media could improve mightily by presenting more complete coverage on all groups, by race, by sex, by religion, when presenting information on various subjects. Who knows? Maybe media outlets will grow into becoming what every progressive person hopes for: more inclusive!

Richard McGowan, Ph.D., an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review Foundation, teaches ethics at Butler University’s Lacy School of Business.



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