June 29, 2017

Reader Identifies Gun Study Error Washington Post Couldn’t (or Wouldn’t) Detect

One of the more annoying aspects of establishment press news coverage is how willing so many journalists are to accept obviously bogus statistics. One recent example was seen on June 20 at the Washington Post. At its Wonkblog, Christopher Ingraham (and presumably his editors) blindly accepted a statistic on children’s exposure to violence which anyone in touch with the real world should have recognized as obviously wrong, namely that 1 out of 24 children “witnessed a shooting” in the past year.

It’s likely that if a single conscientious Dallas Morning News reader hadn’t noticed and followed up on that error, that bogus statistic relayed by Ingraham could have poisoned the debate over gun violence and safety for years to come.

Mike Wilson, a DMN editor, got questioned by that reader after a condensed version of Ingraham’s item appeared in that paper’s print edition (bolds are mine):

How news organizations, including this one, unintentionally misinformed the public on guns

… An eight-paragraph Washington Post article on page 10A (of the DMN) reported on a national study about kids and guns. The last sentence said 4.2 percent of American kids have witnessed a shooting in the past year.

“Really?” (Plano subscriber Steve) Doud wrote. “Does it really sound believable that one kid out of every 24 has witnessed a shooting in the last year? I think not …”

His instincts were right. The statistic was not.

Here is the unfortunate story of how a couple of teams of researchers and a whole bunch of news organizations, including this one, unintentionally but thoroughly misinformed the public.

It all started in 2015, when University of New Hampshire sociology professor David Finkelhor and two colleagues published a study called “Prevalence of Childhood Exposure to Violence, Crime, and Abuse.”

(The) study included a table showing the percentage of kids “witnessing or having indirect exposure” to different kinds of violence in the past year. The figure under “exposure to shooting” was 4 percent.

Earlier this month, researchers from the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and the University of Texas published a nationwide study of gun violence in the journal Pediatrics. They reported that, on average, 7,100 children under 18 were shot each year from 2012 to 2014, and that about 1,300 a year died. No one has questioned those stats.

… The CDC-UT researchers also quoted the “exposure to shooting” statistic from the Finkelhor study, changing the wording — and, for some reason, the stat — just slightly:

“Recent evidence from the National Survey of Children’s Exposure to Violence indicates that 4.2 percent of children aged 0 to 17 in the United States have witnessed a shooting in the past year.”

the actual question the researchers asked was, “At any time in (your child’s/your) life, (was your child/were you) in any place in real life where (he/she/you) could see or hear people being shot, bombs going off, or street riots?”

So the question was about much more than just shootings. But you never would have known from looking at the table.

For that 4.2 percent statistic as reported by the Post’s Ingraham to be true, about 3.1 million of the nation’s 74 million children would have ”witnessed a shooting” in the past year. That’s about 60 times the number of total incidents of gun violence identified for 2014 at the Gun Violence Archive. Anyone with a lick of common sense should have at least been skeptical about the 4.2 percent stat’s accuracy.

While he caught the obvious distinction between “witnessing a shooting” and “could see or hear people being shot, bombs going off, or street riots,” DMN’s Wilson failed to comment on the actual question’s reference to “any time in (your child’s/your) life,” not just in the “past year.” But even what he did catch was enough to force him to admit that a bogus stat “was reported around the world, and some of the world probably believed it.”

This takes us back to Ingraham. How could he not tell that there was something amiss?

Perhaps he was blinded by an agenda, as the tone of his article is intensely anti-gun, to the point where he set up a bizarre analogy, complete with cheesy graphics (bolds are his; links are in original):

What if every child shot in a typical year was enrolled at the same school?

Welcome to the Gun Violence Academy.

With an enrollment of 7,100, it’s one of the largest public schools in the United States. Assuming two riders to a seat in the standard school bus, the school needs a fleet of about 142 buses to ferry America’s shot children to and from school.

… nearly 9 out of 10 children who get shot in the United States are between the ages of 12 and 17. Little children just don’t get shot as often as older ones.

… While Gun Violence Academy is not an all-boys school, it’s close: 8 out of 10 children shot in the United States are boys.

… Of the children killed in gun violence, over half of them are nonwhite. Black students specifically are 10 times as likely as white students to be a victim of gun homicide.

A major reason, if not the major reason, why the age, sex, and race of victims are all so lopsided is gang violence. The Washington Post reporter didn’t even broach that topic.

Ingraham’s described background — he “writes about politics, drug policy and all things data,” and “previously worked at the Brookings Institution and the Pew Research Center” — would make one think that he possesses a decently functioning BS detector. In truth, either he doesn’t, or he chose to turn it off in the interest of promoting an anti-Second Amendment agenda.

Sadly, when it comes to guns, breathtaking journalist ignorance is a plausible explanation. In July of last year, I noted in a NewsBusters post how an award-winning Cincinnati Enquirer reporter vastly overstated annual gun deaths in the U.S. because she interpreted a study’s “over 220,000″ stat as involving just one year instead of over 14. Somehow this reporter, and apparently her editors, actually believed that there are over 600 gun-related deaths in the U.S. every day, when the actual number is in 2015 was 36.

Sometime in the past 48 hours, the Post, apparently reacting to the DMN’s callout, added a correction to Ingraham’s Wonkblog item:

Correction: An earlier version of this story included a statistic that overstated the percentage of kids who’ve witnessed a shooting. That statistic, from a previously published paper in the journal JAMA Pediatrics, included kids who were ”in any place in real life where [they] could see or hear people being shot, bombs going off, or street riots?” The Post regrets the error.

Even though there is no remaining reference to the 4.2 percent stat in the content of Ingraham’s, he still links to the Pediatrics study, which still carries the bogus stat:

Recent evidence from the National Survey of Children’s Exposure to Violence indicates that 4.2% of children aged 0 to 17 in the United States have witnessed a shooting in the past year.

Pediatrics has yet to address the two major problems with this statement, namely that it involves far more than having “witnessed a shooting,” and that it refers not to a single year, but to the life of the children involved in the study thus far.

Thus, one important question remain unresolved: Did the original Pediatrics error in misleadingly revising the underlying University of New Hampshire study arise from sloppiness, or was it a deliberate distortion made in the name of advancing a quarter-century of anti-firearms positions taken by American Academy of Pediatrics? The lack of any correction thus far argues for the latter.

Cross-posted at NewsBusters.org.

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