Monday, March 20, 2006

Bad Reporting?

There's this opinion piece written by a guy named John Leo titled, INCREASING MUSLIM VIOLENCE IN EUROPE IS NOT BEING REPORTED. The caps, by the way, aren't indicative of Leo's writing style, it's just what Yahoo News does for all opinion pieces.

In case you couldn't tell from the title, Leo is concerned that increasing Muslim violence in Europe is not being reported. I'll reproduce the first and last lines of the article so as to get to the point:

Like many news junkies, I've noticed that stories putting Muslims in a bad light tend to be sketchy and underreported. [...]
Suppressing news, whether out of multicultural deference or fear, is a perilous business. We can't know how to react to upheavals if we aren't told about them.
But for me, this kind of piece is the epitome of everything that's wrong with "reporting", if you could call it that, in our increasingly pundit-driven news media. And it's not because I think that Leo is wrong -- I suspect that he's right to a greater or lesser degree -- it's because he doesn't bother to support his arguments with anything other than anecdotes and innuendo.

Now if I were going to make the claim that violence by Muslims or any other group were being underreported, here's what I'd do. I'd go and dig up crime statistics for whatever area of the world I was interested in (in this case, Europe), I'd do various searches in the media for crime stories, and I'd try to find a correlation. If I were to find that Muslims, for example, committed X% of the crimes, yet crime coverage in the media featuring Muslim perps was somewhat less than X% of the total, then this would show me that there was underreporting. Studies doing the same thing for American media have found that crimes committed by minorities are overreported, making it seem as if blacks and latinos commit more crimes than they actually do. No doubt John Leo wagged his finger at the media when those studies came out, but strangely enough, I can't find where. Indeed, every single thing he writes seems to be about accusing the media of being too nice to blacks.

But anyway, you won't find any references to actual studies in the current piece. In typical fashion, a sweeping claim of unfair media coverage of European violence is supported by at most five anecdotes, two of them actually about Europe. Anecdote number one is about a New York City Muslim prison chaplain whose condemnation of George Bush made the news, but some other crazy things he said weren't reported. The second is about the murder of a Jewish man in Paris by a gang of Muslim thugs. Leo's main problem here is that the media were too hesitant to call it an act of anti-semitism.

Then there was the 2002 attack in the L.A. airport. Here, the "government and media" are blamed for being too hesitant to call this an act of terrorism. It took the FBI nine months of investigating, according to Leo, to conclude that this was really a "terrorist act" (however they technically define such things) and not some other category of violence. How exactly the media is to blame for this isn't explained, but CNN's coverage in the immediate aftermath of the event contains something like a dozen references to terrorism.

Next we have a Muslim in North Carolina who tried to run down students with a van he had rented. Here, the university (UNC? Duke? App State?), according to Leo, "tried desperately to avoid the obvious T-word." That's rather artfully worded. Did they actually avoid saying "terrorism" altogether, or did Leo perform a Vulcan mind meld and discover that even though they did use the word, they really didn't want to? And what does this have to do with the media?

And then there is my favorite bit, which is actually about Europe for a change:
Tony Blankley wrote a Washington Times column, March 8, on the underreporting of Muslim violence. He said British politicians tell him there is increasing radical Muslim street violence, explicitly motivated by radical Islam, but not reported or characterized as such. Blankley said rioting Moroccan youths in Antwerp went on a rampage, beating up reporters and destroying cars, but police were instructed not to arrest or stop them. A database search shows little reporting on Antwerp riots.
So John Leo was told by Tony Blankley who was told by British politicians that there is increasing Muslim violence that's not being reported as such. And then Tony Blankley tells him that there was rioting in Antwerp, which is not in Britain, and it wasn't reported as much as it should have been according to whatever objective standard there is for reporting such things. Maybe there's more to it than that, but referencing a convoluted string of second-hand accounts is what I'd call prima facie shitty reporting.

My point here isn't that Leo's thesis is wrong. For all I know, he's probably right and the media do soft-peddle isolated terrorist acts out of fear of inflaming Muslims, or to avoid appearing racist. The point is that his style of argument is so bad as to qualify as intellectually dishonest. Arguing via anecdote carries emotional impact, because people naturally connect better with real-life examples than with statistics, but if you are concerned about little things like the truth, then they are almost entirely meaningless.

The problem with anecdotes is two-fold: First, as the saying goes, "data" is not the plural of "anecdote". Meaning of course that you can't discern a trend merely by focusing only on individual incidents. The second, more serious problem, is that anecdotes are notoriously easy to misconstrue. I wouldn't find Leo's particular examples very impressive even if I took his account as gospel. But if I'm skeptical and want to see if they actually support his thesis, I'd have to go and look up the actual events, learn as much about them as possible, read various media accounts, and then make a judgment call as to whether or not the media should have said "terrorist" more often than they actually did. In my experience, if you actually take the time and effort to do this, you almost always find that the situation is vastly different than characterized, and doesn't really support the main argument at all. This is especially true when the person doing the characterization has a political axe to grind. Maybe my extensive experience with creationists has left me jaded, but I've learned never to take an anecdote at face value.

I make an issue of this because arguments driven entirely by anecdote have become almost universal among the pundit class, particularly those on the right. This is perhaps a sign of growing dishonesty among opinion-makers -- simply substituting what influences readers for what informs them -- but a case could be made that it represents a true break-down of reason itself in contemporary political discourse. Things have gotten to the point where real evidence is treated with something akin to contempt, whereas prejudice is considered actually truth-conducive. If a bit of news can be twisted to fit a pre-existing bias, then the story should be regarded as true because it fits with what we know. At the same time, that story then becomes evidence that the pre-existing bias is true, which then colors the way in which all future bits of news are looked at. This sort of closed loop, self-reinforcing belief system has led a large number of people to live in a fantasy land of their own making, completely disconnected from reality. Examples of this are not hard to find: Neo-cons who insisted that Iraq would be peaches and cream, in spite of all evidence to the contrary; global warming denialists who spin preposterous tales of dark scientific conspiracies; members of the Religious Right who claim that... well, almost everything they claim; etc.

In the end, this sort of thing represents a far greater peril to our society than newspapers that may not use the "T-word", loaded as it is, as often as one person thinks they should.