What bad reporting looks like: Thirteen people were shot in a single incident in Chicago on Thursday night.
Reading Monica Davey’s report in today’s New York Times, it occurred to us that this is what bad reporting looks like:
DAVEY (9/21/13): The attack, which took place during a pickup basketball game, was the latest flare-up of street violence that has confounded city leaders. Chicago had more than 500 homicides in 2012—more than any other city in the nation and about 80 more than New York, which has three times as many people.The highlighted passage isn’t wrong. But for many readers, it will probably reinforce some ideas and beliefs which are wrong. It will extend a false picture.
Most of the violence has occurred in poorer neighborhoods on Chicago’s South and West Sides, and Thursday’s shooting again vaulted the issue to the center of a continuing conversation here about the causes of gun violence and potential solutions.
Chicago did have more homicides than any other city last year. But Chicago is a very large city. That doesn’t mean it has the highest homicide rate.
In fact, Chicago doesn’t come close to having the highest homicide rate. We’ll restrict ourselves to cities big enough to have a professional sports team:
Homicides per 100,000 residents, 2012:Those are the twelve “pro sports” cities with the highest rates. The homicide rate in Baltimore is twice as high as that in Chicago. Detroit and New Orleans go much higher than that.
New Orleans 53.2
St. Louis 35.5
Kansas City 22.6
For more data, click here. Note: These are the rates for all homicides, not just gun homicides, for which data are harder to get.
As major cities go, New York City’s homicide rate is extremely low. But why would you write the highlighted passage in the way Davey did? Because that passage seems likely to mislead readers, we’d call it bad reporting.
For a larger sprawl of bad reporting, we would recommend the Times’ attempt to report the way the House voted to reduce “food stamps” (food assistance through the SNAP program) this week. The vote was held on Thursday. A news report and an editorial appeared in yesterday’s Times.
To what extent will the food assistance program be cut if the House vote becomes law? What sorts of people will be affected? It was very hard to tell from the work in the Times.
Below, you see the start of Ron Nixon’s news report. The headline said the cuts were “deep.” Beyond that, things were murky:
NIXON (9/20/13): House Republicans Pass Deep Cuts in Food StampsSo far, we’ve been told that the program “costs nearly $80 billion a year,” and that the GOP bill would “slash billions of dollars.” But how many billions of dollars were cut? If you read two more paragraphs, you might start to think you have a rough idea:
House Republicans narrowly pushed through a bill on Thursday that slashes billions of dollars from the food stamp program, over the objections of Democrats and a veto threat from President Obama.
The vote set up what promised to be a major clash with the Senate and dashed hopes for passage this year of a new five-year farm bill.
The vote was 217 to 210, largely along party lines.
Republican leaders, under pressure from Tea Party-backed conservatives, said the bill was needed because the food stamp program, which costs nearly $80 billion a year, had grown out of control. They said the program had expanded even as jobless rates had declined with the easing recession.
NIXON (continuing directly): “This bill eliminates loopholes, ensures work requirements, and puts us on a fiscally responsible path,” said Representative Marlin Stutzman, Republican of Indiana, who led efforts to split the food stamps program from the overall farm bill. “In the real world, we measure success by results. It’s time for Washington to measure success by how many families are lifted out of poverty and helped back on their feet, not by how much Washington bureaucrats spend year after year.”According to that, the program would still spend more than $70 billion per year in the next decade. And we’ve already been told it spends almost $80 billion per year at present.
But even with the cuts, the food stamp program would cost more than $700 billion over the next 10 years.
That sounds like the program would be cut from $80 billion to $70 billion per year. But wait! If you read down to paragraph 10, you are now reading this:
NIXON: The bill, written under the direction of the House majority leader, Eric Cantor, Republican of Virginia, would cut $40 billion from the food stamp program over the next 10 years. It would also require adults between 18 and 50 without minor children to find a job or to enroll in a work-training program in order to receive benefits.Now we’re told that the bill would cut $40 billion over ten years. That suggests that the program would cost roughly $700 billion over the next 10 years, down from roughly $740 billion.
(If the program costs $80 billion per year now, why would is it projected to cost $740 billion over the next ten years? Even later, Nixon says spending is projected to drop as the economy improves, even without any further cuts to the program.)
Nixon wrote a full news report; it ran 800 words. In our view, he did a very poor job reporting the size of the proposed cut.
Nor did he try to explain who would be affected by this proposal. Who would be hit by the cuts, and by how much? He didn't say.
In their featured editorial, the editors did even worse. After thundering a bit, they larded their piece with statistics which weren’t directly relevant to the basic questions at hand.
How big are the proposed cuts? Who would be affected, and how? This is the way the editors began:
NEW YORK TIMES EDITORIAL (9/20/13): Another Insult to the PoorThe editors said the proposal would “drastically” cut food assistance. But, like Nixon, the editors had a very hard time quantifying their claims.
In what can be seen only as an act of supreme indifference, House Republicans passed a bill on Thursday that would drastically cut federal food stamps and throw 3.8 million Americans out of the program in 2014.
The vote came two weeks after the Agriculture Department reported that 17.6 million households did not have enough to eat at some point in 2012 because they lacked the resources to put food on the table. It came two days after the Census Bureau reported that 15 percent of Americans, or 46.5 million people, live in poverty.
As they started, the editors said that 3.8 million people would be dropped from the program. But they didn’t cite a source for this claim, and they never said how many people are in the program at present.
Instead of presenting that relevant number, they presented some numbers which weren’t directly relevant. Let’s assume that 46.5 million people live in poverty. Will any of them be affected by the proposed cut? This was the best the editors could do:
NEW YORK TIMES EDITORIAL (continuing directly): These numbers were basically unchanged from 2011, but in a growing economy steady rates of hunger and poverty amount, in effect, to backsliding. Cutting food stamps would accelerate the slide. Food stamps kept four million people out of poverty last year and kept millions more from falling deeper into poverty. Under the House Republican bill, many of these people would be impoverished.According to the editors, four million people were pushed above the poverty line by food assistance last year. Millions more remained below the poverty line despite receiving food assistance.
According to the editors, “many” of these people would be affected by the proposed cuts. This is a very lazy, very careless attempt at real reporting.
In the past, we’ve often noted an odd phenomenon at the New York Times. Often, the newspaper’s editorials involve a lot more hard information than its news reports.
That didn’t happen here. The rest of the editorial was basically filler—information about the general economy which did nothing to answer some basic questions: By how much would food assistance be cut? What sorts of people would be affected?
For ourselves, we know of no reason to think that this program needs to be cut. That said, we wanted to know how big the proposed cut actually was. We wanted to know who would be affected, and by how much.
The Times was generous with its adjectives (“deep” and “drastic”) but stingy with its basic facts. We’d say Nixon did bad reporting.
The editorial was worse.
For better reporting, see this: In our view, the New York Times did some lousy reporting about the proposed cut in food assistance.
The news report by USA Today was clearer, with much more information. What is the reason for that?