Real journalists don’t do data

When conservative commentator Tucker Carlson launched the Daily Caller last year he promised readers original reporting on US politics. As he told the Columbia Journalism Review: "our view is that people want reliable information they’re not getting other places".

When journalists promise reliable information, what they usually mean is that will accurately report what their sources say. So when the Daily Caller reports: "Friend says Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie told him there is no Obama birth certificate" they’re not claiming there is no Obama birth certificate. All they’re saying is that a Hollywood reporter called Mike Evans told KQRS radio that he was talking to the governor of Hawaii and that the governor said he couldn’t find Obama’s birth certificate. So that’s a 100% reliable story. So far so good …

But not all the reporting at the Daily Caller meets even this low standard. For example, here’s how they covered a recent report on pedestrian traffic fatalities:

Pedestrian deaths increased sharply during the first half of 2010, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA). On Wednesday, the Executive Director of the GHSA accused the first lady’s obesity program of causing the deaths by encouraging people to exercise.

The first statement is just wrong. What the report actually said was:

The number of pedestrian traffic fatalities in the United States for the first six months of 2010 was essentially unchanged from 2009, based on preliminary data supplied by all 50 states and the District of Columbia.

‘Essentially unchanged’ is not the same thing as ‘increased sharply’. According to the report, fatalities increased from 1,884 in the first 6 months of 2009 to 1,891 in the first 6 months of 2010. That’s an increase of 7 or 0.4%. And the report goes on to explain that the data are preliminary and may differ from data collected by the federal government’s Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS). So by the end of the year, it may turn out that the official numbers are down rather than up. And as you can see from the chart below, it doesn’t look like there’s actually anything interesting going on with the data (original data here). The long term trend has been a decline in pedestrian fatalities with annual numbers fluctuating around the trend. If the curve flattens out in 2010, what needs explaining?

The real trouble starts with the GHSA’s apparently newsworthy speculations about why the numbers haven’t continued to fall. Pedestrian fatalities have fallen year on year since 2005 and according to the report: " If the second six months of 2010 also show no change, this will mark an end to four years of decreases." Canvassing ideas from state government authorities the report suggests: "A focus on liveable communities, or ‘get moving’ health and fitness programs may increase walking and pedestrian-vehicle conflicts".

Let’s Move!‘ is First Lady Michelle Obama’s campaign to deal with childhood obesity. And GHSA spokesperson Jonathan Adkins didn’t discourage the idea the program might be increasing the risk. He told radio station 630 WMAL that Michelle Obama is "trying to get us to walk to work and exercise a little bit more. While that’s good, it also increases our exposure to risk."

So it seems that the Daily Caller‘s second claim that "the Executive Director of the GHSA accused the first lady’s obesity program of causing the deaths by encouraging people to exercise" isn’t entirely misleading. The basis for the claim is a story by Scott McCabe in the Washington Examiner where he quotes GHSA executive director Barbara Harsha’s speculations about the cause of the apparent increase in pedestrian fatalities.

Barbara Harsha later told the Atlantic‘s Derek Thompson that she’d been misquoted and that "We in no way oppose Ms. Obama’s program." When the Daily Caller started attracting criticism for their coverage of the story, they posted updates showing that it was GHSA staff who started the speculation about health and fitness programs. But they didn’t retract the claim that pedestrian deaths and "increased sharply".

What the Daily Caller is trying to do is show that it quoted its sources accurately. But what they haven’t done is justify the claim that something has happened with the pedestrian fatalities data that needs explaining. This matters because if there isn’t a meaningful change in the data then there’s no reason to speculate about the First Lady’s fitness campaign.

At Larvatus Prodeo, Robert Merkel suggested that many journalists are unable to interpret numerical data. While this might be true, it seems that some journalists just don’t think it’s their job to make sense of numbers. If a source has a provocative interpretation of the data, then it’s OK to go ahead and quote them. After all, asking whether the interpretation makes any sense would be to insert yourself into the story. And that’s the kind of thing irresponsible bloggers do.

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Andrew Norton
13 years ago

Though in my experience most journalists do make an attempt to see whether or not there is a story and to get their numbers right. Twice in the last couple of weeks I have helped journalists with sourcing, calculating and interpreting higher ed related numbers.