Race in the national parks: Sometimes, the New York Times attempts to engage in reporting.
Sometimes, these attempts at reporting appear on the paper’s front page. That’s what happened yesterday via this front-page report about race and the national parks.
Kirk Johnson reported from La Push, Washington. This is the way he began:
JOHNSON (9/6/13): Thrusting out into the Pacific Ocean, Olympic National Park can feel like a lost world, with its ferny rain forests, violent surf and cloud-shrouded peaks.As we’ve told you, the New York Times [HEART] race. As such, this “strangeness” in the national parks seemed to be right up their alley.
But to the four women who hiked down to the sand one recent afternoon, there was an added element of strangeness: race.
On the other hand, the New York Times isn’t real big on facts, statistics or information. This is how Johnson continued:
JOHNSON (continuing directly): “We’ve been here for two days, walking around, and I can’t think of any brown person that I’ve seen,” said Carol Cain, 42, a New Jersey resident of Dominican and Puerto Rican roots, who was zipped up tight in her hooded, dripping rain jacket.Only twenty percent of visitors to the national parks are nonwhite, Johnson reported. Only ten percent are Hispanic, an embrace which is “particularly lackluster.”
The National Park Service knows all too well what Ms. Cain is talking about. In a soul-searching, head-scratching journey of its own, the agency that manages some of the most awe-inspiring public places is scrambling to rethink and redefine itself to the growing number of Americans who do not use the parks in the way that previous—mostly white—generations did.
Only about one in five visitors to a national park site is nonwhite, according to a 2011 University of Wyoming report commissioned by the Park Service, and only about 1 in 10 is Hispanic—a particularly lackluster embrace by the nation’s fastest-growing demographic group.
But as Ed McMahon might have asked, How lackluster is it? At no point did Johnson supply the basic statistics that would let a Times reader say.
Forget about visitors to national parks. What percentage of the national population is nonwhite? Presumably, few Times readers can answer that question—and it didn’t occur to Johnson’s editor that this report ought to say.
What percentage of the national population is white/nonwhite/Hispanic? Since we ourselves didn’t know, we decided to check—and frankly, the embrace of the parks didn’t seem enormously “lackluster” once we took that side trip.
That said, the questions here can get a bit tricky, because more than half of Hispanics are white.
We know, we know! This distinction created a ton of confusion and snark during the past year's discussions of George Zimmerman. And in many areas, this distinction is ignored.
Education statistics typically divide the student population into white, black and Hispanic, for example. No further questions are asked.
That said, it’s amazing to see a report of this type which doesn’t even attempt to provide the relevant national statistics as a point of comparison. But that’s the nature of the New York Times! On the one hand, the paper loves its front-page reports about race. On the other hand, facts and information tend to bore its hired hands.
Is twenty percent a lot or a little? If that represents a lackluster embrace, just how lackluster is it? In the course of our search, we looked at this. Following that, we clicked to this.
After we had refreshed ourselves, the turn-out in the national parks didn’t seem gigantically shocking, depending on the kinds of statistic the national parks are using. But that isn’t the point of our post.
Our point involves the reflexive failure to include even the most basic facts in the New York Times, our greatest and smartest newspaper. Is twenty percent a lot or a little? It didn’t seem to occur to the Times that they ought to provide the kind of information that lets a reader say.
As a general matter, the Times [HEART] race. It just doesn’t care all that much about facts. It’s soft on information.
It isn’t just the Times: Inevitably, Salon offered a reaction to the Times report. So did the New Republic, in an earlier piece to which Salon linked.
Neither piece attempted to place the Times report in a wider statistical context.
Twenty percent of visitors to the national parks are nonwhite. But how does that compare to the percentage of the national population?
Neither piece attempted to say. If we want to be truthful about it, are the kids all right?