THURSDAY, SEPTEMBER 23, 2021
Statistical dumbness is Us: Just as the experts have said, we simply aren't up to the task of conducting the most basic journalism.
Consider the statistical shakiness which starts to appear in this passage from this morning's New York Times news report:
ROBERTSON (9/23/21): [Gwen] Ifill, who died in 2016 after a distinguished career that included stints at The Washington Post, The Times and NBC News before she became co-anchor of “PBS NewsHour,” raised the issue of what she called “missing white woman syndrome” at a journalism conference in 2004. “If there’s a missing white woman, we are going to cover that, every day,” she noted wryly.
In the years since, national news outlets have continued to deliver frequent, detailed reports that made young, white women such as Natalee Holloway, who disappeared in 2005 while vacationing in Aruba, into household names.
To what "statistical shakiness" do we refer? We refer to this statistical shakiness:
In that passage, the Times reporter, Katie Robertson, quotes Gwen Ifill seeming to say that the mainstream media covers every case in which a there's a missing white woman. Indeed, Ifill seems to say that every such case gets a lot of coverage.
Robertson proceeds to offer an example. She cites a case which did get a lot of attention—back in 2005!
Can you think of a more recent case? The Times report seems to say that there are many such cases, but we'll admit that we can't think of examples, and it almost looks like the Times couldn't do so either..
With that in mind, can you see the shakiness which may be lurking there? We ask that question because the editors at the New York Times 1) couldn't see the shakiness, or 2) just didn't prefer to.
Now, let's consider a case of statistical illiteracy. It comes from that same New York Times report, but it also appeared in the Washington Post, and it's being widely copied as the day proceeds:
ROBERTSON: The demographic makeup of major news organizations is another factor in the emphasis on narratives of white women who go missing or are murdered, said Martin G. Reynolds, co-executive director of the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education.
The disappearances of people of color tend not to generate the same volume of media interest, despite their occurring at a higher rate. A report from the University of Wyoming found that 710 Indigenous people were reported missing from 2011 to 2020 in that state, which is where Ms. Petito’s remains were found.
Can you see the statistical illiteracy lurking there? The breakdown goes like this:
Robertson links to this report from the University of Wyoming. Making a long story short, the Wyoming report includes this passage:
These records represent 4,884 unique individuals, 710 of whom were Indigenous. Law enforcement agencies in Wyoming enter nearly 900 missing person records into NCIC annually. Each year, approximately 13% (n = 120) are records of Indigenous people.
In that passage, we learn that there were 4,884 missing persons in Wyoming during the decade in question. Performing the math, the numbers break down like this:
Missing persons in Wyoming:
Total number of missing persons: 4,884
Missing persons who were Indigenous: 710
Missing persons who weren't Indigenous: 4,174
It's true! You never heard about the 710 missing persons. But duh! You never heard about the 4,174 missing persons either.
Putting it a different way, you never heard about any of those missing persons in the way you've heard about the late Gabby Petito this week. In fact, you never heard about any of those missing persons at all.
For starters, that's because, Ifill's pleasing statement to the contrary, the mainstream media doesn't cover the cases of "every missing white woman." In fact, the media almost never covers such cases. Almost no missing persons get covered this way, including the blonde and the blue-eyed.
The statistical dumbness of this morning's Times report rises to the level of undisguised, flat-out Stupid. That said, it's very typical of the way our high-end journalists work when confronted with any sort of statistical or pseudo-statistical statement.
In this case, the Times was eager to push Storyline, and so it ran with that absurdly irrelevant statistic. For whatever reason, its unnamed editors didn't remove that irrelevant passage from the report. For all we know, it may be the editors who stuck the passage in.
Increasingly, our journalism is Storyline all the way down. Along with that, our Storyline selection is tribal.
In this instance, these factors led the Times to pretend that oversized coverage occurs all the time with missing white women, even as they couldn't seem to come up with a recent example—and even as they failed to note one of the obvious reasons why the disappearance of the late Gabby Petito has received so much coverage.
In part, this case has received an outsized amount of coverage because Petito was a travel blogger who had posted tons of footage of her cross-country trip. It has also received outsized coverage because the ludicrous behavior of her fiancé comes straight out of a cable-friendly, Sleeping With the Enemy-style movie.
That said, also this:
This case has received a lot of coverage because, by conventional norms, Petito was stunningly telegenic. Cable loves to run video footage of conventionally attractive young women, just as it loves to hire such women to appear on the air.
Obviously, race and color play major roles in judgments concerning who is and isn't attractive; this fact is extremely unfortunate. But, as judged by conventional norms, Petito was stunningly telegenic.
That fact played an obvious role in this week's unusual amount of coverage. As part of its general vapidity, CNN loves to air footage like that, along with equally exciting footage of hurricanes, fires and floods.
That said, gaze upon the statistical dumbness of upper-end newspapers like the Washington Post and the Times.
In this report, the Post subjects that statistic from Wyoming to even dumber use. This dumbness runs through the coverage of almost every matter our upper-end press corps pursues.
That dumbness is in the saddle and it rules our journalistic humankind. And no, a modern nation can't hope to survive when its tribunes are so vapid and so incompetent, and so ruled by Storyline.
Concerning Ifill's wry remark, we'll only say this—at least she wasn't covering for her warmongering friend, Condi Rice, on that particular day.
Concerning that astoundingly silly pseudo-statistic, it's a case of the 710 versus the more than four thousand! None of those stories got covered this way—in fact, none of those stories got covered at all. That's because what Ifill said was, and is, transparently bogus.
When we saw the figure 710, we wondered about the other figure, as any competent person would. When we looked at the Wyoming report, we were able to cipher it out—4,174!
This sort of thing is beyond the reach of our upper-end mainstream journalists. Many went to the finest schools, but they rarely show the slightest sign of being able or inclined to handle such questions as this.
Our brains aren't wired for this sort of thing. They're wired to pimp tribal Storyline, or so the top experts all tell us!
The earlier missing white woman: As of 2004, the earlier missing white woman was Chandra Levy. Her case received blanket coverage in 2001 because the crackpot conservative world was using it to push the "Democrats chase after interns" line, with the mainstream press corps politely playing along.
In other words, it was part of the ongoing MSM war against Clinton, Clinton and Gore, the war which put Bush and Trump in the White House—the inexcusable, brain-damaged war which remains undiscussed.
CNN ran with it, night after night, all through the summer of 2001. (As summertime fare, it was even better than shark attacks!) On September 11, al Qaeda hit, and this much adored, important topic was never mentioned again.
This is the way this guild has functioned over the course of the past many years. Within a year, they were savaging Gore for saying, in a major speech, we should stay out of Iraq. Frank Rich was never more angry than he was with the phony, dishonest Gore! Katie Couric went after him too!
This is who and what we are. Simply put, we're wired this way, disconsolate experts insist.