A “Story That Speaks For Itself”

That’s how the New York Times’ Public Editor, Clark Hoyt, describes his paper’s multi-part series on homicides allegedly committed by veterans of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. But what, exactly, does the story say? That’s the rub, as the Times reporters–who, Hoyt reveals, worked for eight months on the series–plainly intended to create the impression that combat duty has so traumatized our military personnel that they are engaged in a nationwide crime wave.
We critiqued the first installment of the series here, pointing out that the 121 alleged homicides identified by the Times over a six-year period represented a much lower than normal homicide rate compared to the general population in the same age range. So why did the Times write that the veterans’ murder spree, ostensibly the result of post-traumatic stress disorder, was a “quiet phenomenon, tracing a cross-country trail of death and heartbreak?” Why did the Times write that antisocial behavior by combat veterans is a centuries-old phenomenon, rather than acknowledging that today’s American vets are remarkably peace-loving, and apparently benefit from excellent care by the armed services and, where appropriate, by the Veterans’ Administration?
That’s a good question which, needless to say, Hoyt doesn’t try to answer. When I wrote the post linked above, it was obvious how the Times would defend its shoddy journalism. I suggested that the Times undertake a months-long investigation by a team of crack reporters to identify all of the cases in which a newspaper employee has been accused of homicide. I added:

No need to wonder whether reporters, editors and typesetters commit homicide at a rate any different from the rest of the population–a single murder is too many!

Sure enough, Hoyt writes:

A handful of killings caused by the stresses of war would be too many and cause for action.

One could say the same about a handful of killings caused by the stresses of the newsroom. In any event, Hoyt admits that the statistical analysis undertaken by his paper’s reporters was embarrassingly amateurish. (They got “tangled…in numbers.” Hey, no one expects reporters to understand math.) Hoyt, of course, isn’t much better than the Times’ reporters at analyzing data. He writes:

The individual stories the series has told so far are indeed sad, powerful and important. One hopes they will goad the military to figure out what went wrong and what needs fixing.

But what is the evidence that something is wrong and “needs fixing”? When you deal with a population of more than a million people, there will inevitably be some sad and powerful stories. That’s a given. But to determine that something is “wrong and needs fixing,” you have to put that handful of stories into context, and that requires statistical analysis. Do 121 alleged homicides, including driving offenses and other cases with no apparent relevance to military service, over a six-year period, prove that the armed services are doing something wrong? The answer, based on statistical analysis, appears to be: clearly not. Which is not to doubt that the military, having standards far higher than those of the New York Times, will continue working hard to deal even more effectively with those cases of stress disorder that do, undoubtedly, exist.
Along the way, Hoyt lets slip that Times has a “computer-assisted reporting unit [that] normally screens articles with statistical analyses.” That unit, however, was not brought into the story on murderous vets, and its leader “shared some concerns” with the stories’ editor, after the fact.
Let’s pause here: Imagine that the Times were a manufacturing company that produced a defective product and got sued. Imagine further that the evidence showed that it had a unit that was capable of carrying out a statistical analysis that could have prevented the product–the series on murderous vets–from being defective, but the people selling the defective product didn’t make use of that capability. Imagine further that the head of the unit that carries out statistical analyses to avoid product defects “shared some concerns,” too late, about the company’s defective product. This would be a case in which any plaintiff’s lawyer (John Edwards, say) would demand millions of dollars in punitive damages. And the Times would cheer him on every step of the way. Fortunately, there is not a single major manufacturing company in the United States as incompetent as the New York Times.
So: based on Hoyt’s article, do the reporters who portrayed veterans as responsible for a “cross-country trail of death and heartbreak” have a defense? They do, sort of, and it’s an eye-opener:

The journalists most responsible for the series

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