Do misperceptions matter?: Is it possible that misperceptions might arise from the way the mainstream press has been covering fatal shooting at the hands of police officers?
(As a point of fairness, it should be said—not all such deaths involve police misconduct. We would assume that most do not, though we've never seen an attempt to study that question.)
At present, the press corps tends to cover some such deaths in great detail, but only if the victim is black. Is it possible that misperceptions can arise from this remarkable practice?
Beyond that, might such misperceptions be harmful in some way? Or is it possible that, at a time of revolution, selective coverage is the way to go—the way to effect useful change?
Concerning political strategy, opinions will surely differ. Concerning possible misperceptions, it's hard to believe that misperceptions don't arise from such unusual press corps behavior.
That said, the Beatles didn't want a revolution, but today's high bourgeoisie does. They clutter the staffs at our major newspapers. Storyline follows from there.
At present, they rush to show how deeply they care about the kinds of societal problems they and/or their colleagues and predecessors completely ignored in the past. Their news orgs ignored these topics for decades. Today, they pretend to care about little else.
Some of these upper-end journalists are extremely young. Overstatement may be the only kind of statement they've ever known in these highly fraught "spaces."
(According to top anthropologists, the invention of new language helps establish tribal membership in highly tribalized times.)
The thumbs of these ardent journalists may often be found on the scales. Can this lead to misperceptions? Consider something Linda Qiu wrote in yesterday's New York Times.
We have no reason to doubt that Qiu is a thoroughly good, decent person. She's also the top fact-checker at the New York Times, a position to which she seems to bring no discernible skills.
Qiu is six years out of college (University of Chicago, class of 2014). Weirdly, she was only three years out of college when she ascended to her post at our most fatuous newspaper.
It may seem strange to think that a person so young and so unskilled holds so high a position in our upper-end press corps. But this is the way the game is played at the hapless and Hamptons-based Times.
How strong are Qiu's fact-checking skills? Consider something she wrote yesterday. Also, consider the possibility that fevered writing of this type may lead to misperceptions among us rubes, possibly even to harm.
Qiu had been asked to fact-check William Barr's testimony before the House Judiciary committee. As a general matter, we'll suggest this:
Whatever you thought of Barr's testimony, Qiu's efforts may have been even worse.
We're going to focus on one minor claim Qiu made in her report. Barr had spoken about shooting deaths at the hands of police. Early in her report, Qiu performed this check:
WHAT MR. BARR SAIDOverall, Qiu scored Barr's statement as "misleading." For ourselves, we'd be inclined to score part of his statement as just plain simply false:
“According to statistics compiled by The Washington Post, the number of unarmed Black men killed by police so far this year is eight. The number of unarmed white men killed by police over the same time period is 11. And the overall numbers of police shootings has been decreasing.”
This is misleading. Mr. Barr accurately cited a database of police shootings compiled by The Washington Post. But the raw numbers obscure the pronounced racial disparity in such shootings. (The statement was also an echo of Mr. Trump’s technically accurate, but misleading claim that “more white” Americans are killed by the police than Black Americans.)
When factoring in population size, Black Americans are killed by the police at more than twice the rate as white Americans, according to the database. Research has also shown that in the United States, on average, the probability of being shot by a police officer for someone who is Black and unarmed is higher than for someone who is white and armed.
Is it true? Have "the overall numbers of police shootings" actually "been decreasing?" That's what Barr said, if only in passing. But as far as we know, they have not.
In that passage, Qiu refers to the Washington Post's Fatal Force database, as Barr did in his quoted statement. But that database only records fatal shootings, and these are its annual numbers since it came into existence:
Fatal shootings by police officers, 2015-2019Most observers have noted the way those annual numbers haven't decreased. If that's what Barr was talking about, then that one statement seems to be false.
Barr may have been talking about something else; Qiu probably should have asked his office. But to the extent that it actually matters, that statement may have been false.
Qiu scored Barr's overall statement "misleading" because he failed to mention the fact that "Black Americans are killed by the police at more than twice the rate as white Americans, according to the [Post] database."
Given the larger point Barr was explicitly making—"the fact is that these events are fortunately quite rare"—we aren't sure we'd fault him for failing to mention that fact. But we were struck by Qiu's next statement.
To be honest, Qiu's next statement had little to do with what Barr actually said. But we couldn't help wondering whether this was actually true:
"Research has also shown that in the United States, on average, the probability of being shot by a police officer for someone who is Black and unarmed is higher than for someone who is white and armed."
We don't know why the term "on average" is included there. But is it possible that an unarmed black person is more likely to be shot and killed by a police officer? More likely to be shot and skilled than a white person who is armed?
It's a bit hard to know what that statement means, but it surely does help drive current preferred Storyline. For her source, Qiu links to exactly one piece of "research," a study from 2015 which bears this daunting title:
A Multi-Level Bayesian Analysis of Racial Bias in Police Shootings at the County-Level in the United States, 2011–2014Can we talk? That study is so complex, so convoluted and so technical that we have no idea how to assess its claims. Along those lines, if you think anyone at the New York Times knows how to evaluate that study, we have a bridge to the 51st century we'd be willing to sell you.
To be honest, Qiu's statement had little to do with anything Barr really said. It did reinforce preferred Storyline. But could that claim really be true?
Are unarmed black people shot more frequently than white people who are armed? It's hard to get clear on what that statement actually means, but we decided to look at the Fatal Force site, which Barr and Qiu had both cited.
It's hard to get clear on what that claim means. But this is what we found at the Fatal Force site:
According to the Post database, police officers shot and killed 368 armed white people last year. By way of contrast, police officers shot and killed 14 unarmed black people.
Even adjusting for population, there's no real comparison there. According to the Census Bureau, there were 4.5 times more white people in the national population last year. But the ration between those two groups of shooting victims was 26.3 to one!
We don't really know what Qiu's claim actually means. Nor can we say that it's hugely relevant to anything Barr really said.
That said, it did come straight outta Storyline, the one we all currently love. Could it also create misperceptions? Could it possibly produce real harm?
Could Qiu's highly desirable claim heighten the sense, of a parent or perhaps of a child, that black people are being wantonly hunted down by police officers? It seems to us that it could.
Especially when based on inaccurate claims, can such perceptions cause serious harm? It seems to us that they can!
How should these shooting deaths be reported? We'll close today with two points—with points about two disproportions:
At present, certain black shooting deaths get reported and widely discussed. White shooting deaths do not.
This practice seems remarkably hard to justify, but there's zero chance it will stop. Our press corps runs on Storyline, and this is the one they now love.
It's also true that, in a fuller discussion of this very important topic, absolute numbers of shooting deaths must be adjusted for population. Our cable stars rarely adjust when their failure to do so cuts against Trump, but serious journalists should adjust for population here.
It's true! Roughly twice as many white people get shot and killed by police each year! But this is also true:
"When factoring in population size, Black Americans are killed by the police at more than twice the rate as white Americans." That fact is also true.
At "liberal" sites, the need to state that second fact will rarely arise, since the existence of white shooting deaths won't be mentioned at all. But on the rare occasion when someone like Trump actually makes an accurate statement, a fuller discussion must involve that nagging frequency gap.
A full discussion won't stop there, but that's where a fuller discussion must go. Where might a full discussion go after that?
We'll return to that question tomorrow. For today, we'll leave you with this:
The fact-check by the youthful Qiu came straight outta preferred Storyline. This is par for the course at the Times, a place where the virus has spread.
Tomorrow: Why so many shooting deaths? Also, what Sharpton said
Fuller disclosure: Sometimes, the shooting of an unarmed person must be scored as justified. For example:
Out in Minnesota, it turned out that Robert Christen was unarmed when he was shot and killed by that female deputy sheriff.
Christen is listed as "unarmed" at the Fatal Force site. That said, the deputy had no way to know that he was unarmed—and Christen, a former Big Ten fullback, was trying to bullrush past her into the house of his former girl friend, who he'd said he was going to kill.
Christen had a long, extremely painful history of mental illness. This case was tragic for all involved. Except in the realm of Storyline, many of these incidents are.
Sometimes, heinous killings do occur. So it was in the case of the late George Floyd, and in the case of the late Tony Timpa.